Rabbi Bleich writes in “Calm Reflection’ on the Jewish View of Abortion” (May 19, 2022), that a “quasi-constitutional” principle holds that a “sovereign has a compelling interest in the preservation of the life of each and every one of his subjects. There are no grounds to exclude unborn subjects...” Not being a lawyer, I’m not sure what a “quasi-constitutional principle” is, or why “sovereigns” and “subjects” are germane to modern U.S. law, but what I infer Rabbi Bleich’s point to be is that there is some general consensus or hoary legal tradition—outside of religious conviction—that a fertilized egg must be viewed as identical to a human being.
I am not convinced. It seems to me that there is in actuality no cultural consensus, secular tradition or scientific determination about how to regard the status of an embryo. This is why the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade did not address the issue of when life begins. Different people have very different views on this, typically based on their own religious convictions. I expect that Rabbi Bleich, for example, would agree that his own views on the matter ultimately derive from his religious beliefs, his interpretation of Torah and halacha, and not from secular legal theories of sovereignty.
This being the case, we need to be very wary about encouraging the state to coerce citizens’ behavior based on religious convictions they do not share. Rabbi Bleich surely would not want the government to criminalize Americans’ use of birth control or IVF simply because the Catholic Church considers this to be deeply immoral or even tantamount to homicide. Likewise, if there was a religious minority that viewed the slaughter of animals as murder, I presume Rabbi Bleich would deny the right of that minority to coerce him and the Jewish community to abandon shechita on account of those foreign religious precepts. So, if Rabbi Bleich would object to the imposition of others’ religious beliefs upon him, as I assume he would, why is he comfortable in imposing his own religious convictions upon other Americans?
Rabbi Bleich concludes by saying that that the repeal of Roe will have no real consequences for Jewish women seeking safe abortions. Although I realize the Rabbi is writing from a Jewish perspective, we would surely have to be ashamed of ourselves if we think only about the well-being of Jewish women. “Don’t be concerned because it will only hurt them, and not us,” is not an argument we should ever hear ourselves making. There will be thousands of women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who do not have the means to travel for a safe abortion if their states ban the procedure, and we should be equally concerned for all of their welfare.
Ultimately, I think it’s wrong to believe that overturning Roe is primarily a matter of legal technicality whose only practical effects will be some minor inconveniences in travel. Anti-abortion advocates have worked tirelessly and single-mindedly over literally decades to repeal Roe v. Wade precisely because they believe its repeal will have sweeping nationwide effects on women’s access to abortion. Those who think anti-abortion advocates will be satisfied with incomplete abortion bans in only a handful of states are, I think, unfortunately mistaken.David Fass