Rabbi Laurie Rice of Congregation Micah in Brentwood, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Backers of Tennessee’s strict abortion ban often cite their Christian faith. But some Middle Tennessee Jewish and Muslim faith leaders say the law compromises their ability to draw on their own religious traditions in guiding worshipers through difficult decisions.
“I think it’s a complete imposition of one religious tradition’s understanding upon the rest of the community. There’s no regard for the Jewish community’s beliefs or communal norms,” said Rabbi Laurie Rice from the Congregation Micah, a synagogue located in Brentwood.
On Aug. 25, Tennessee implemented a strict abortion ban making no exceptions for rape, incest or fatal fetal anomalies, and doctors who perform abortions, even lifesaving ones, risk criminal prosecution.
Before the ban was enacted, Jewish leaders in Nashville met on Aug. 12 to discuss how Judaism views abortion.
I think it’s a complete imposition of one religious tradition’s understanding upon the rest of the community. There’s no regard for the Jewish community’s beliefs or communal norms.
– Rabbi Laurie Rice, Congregatin Micah
In a broadcast hosted by the Jewish Federation & Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, six Jewish leaders representing different religious backgrounds–from modern-Orthodox to Reform–said that because under Jewish law a soul does not enter the body until birth, the choice to have an abortion is open to interpretation.
“The law will establish that the fetus is not considered to be fully in the same category as a person who has already been born,’’ said Rabbi Joshua Kullock, from the conservative West End Synagogue.
First and foremost, if a mother’s life is in danger, abortion is permissible as described in the Mishnah, or Jewish law, he said.
“That every single time that there is a risk for the life of the mother, the termination of the pregnancy can happen even all the way up to the end of the pregnancy,” said Kullock.
Other circumstances can also be taken into consideration.
For instance, some Jewish sources indicate that a fetus is considered a part of its mother’s body, supporting the notion that women should be able to make decisions concerning their autonomy.
Rabbi Saul Strosberg argued that Judaism may also take into consideration a woman’s mental and physical health, and that mothers may also decide to have an abortion to focus their limited resources on their living children instead of the unborn child.
“It’s very empowering to women. Mothers are the ones who make this decision and that may not be traditional,” said Strosberg, from the Sherith Israel Congregation.
Although most Jewish religious leaders agree that abortion is not permitted without reason, opinions differ on under what circumstance the procedure should be allowed. But local leaders said that the choice should ultimately be left to a woman and her doctor.
“And the government should not interfere,” said Erin Coleman, an attorney at the Jewish women advocacy group, Hadassah. “Even the most religious rabbi in Nashville said that decision should not be controlled by the government.”
At the Islamic Center of Nashville, Dr. Ossama Bahloul addressed the varying ways that abortion is regarded under Islam, which says that the soul enters a fetus at 120 days, or four months.
The “default position of Islam is pro-life,” he said.
“Historically speaking scholars express their care about pregnancy and caution against eliminating pregnancy in general. With this said, one might view the scholar’s way of viewing pregnancy in three stages,” said Bahloul. “From day one until day 40, some scholars will entertain an abortion for a valid reason. From day 40 to day 120, the scholars begin to look for a reason that carries a heavy weight. From day 120 until the end of the pregnancy, the only reason for an abortion would be out of extreme necessity and that necessity must be that the mother’s life would be lost.”
Married couples may make the decision to have an abortion together, which usually is done after receiving advice from faith leaders, counselors, mental-health professionals, health staff and other trusted individuals, he said.
Other exceptions may be made for rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormalities.
“While some (scholars) will not allow abortion during any stage of a pregnancy without necessity, others will consider a good reason to be enough — a woman being raped or potential harm to the mother, for instance — and some (scholars) choose to accommodate a reasonable excuse within the first 40 days of a pregnancy,” said Bahloul.
According to Shaykh Mohammed Faqih, imam and religious director at the Memphis Islamic Center, abortion is decided on a case-by-case basis, each case is handled differently under Islam.
But after 120 days, when the soul is believed to enter the fetus, most scholars will consider abortion to be the ending of a human life.
“If a person is seeking an abortion, it’s always a tough decision to be made,” said Mohammed. “We always advocate (that) individuals going through any personal crisis causing them to consider abortion should be given the attention, spiritual and mental care support that they need.”
Tennessee’s abortion ban complicates those decisions, he said.
“Politically speaking, it’s very awkward for us and we don’t want political officials to make the choice for everyone,” said Mohammed.
Abortion providers can use the “affirmative defense” in limited cases, but they will first face criminal charges and will need to prove the mother’s life was in danger. Doing so may involve allowing the mother’s health to deteriorate before they can intervene. Physicians may also decline to treat patients for fear of legal repercussions.
If a person is seeking an abortion, it’s always a tough decision to be made . . . Politically speaking, it's very awkward for us and we don't want political officials to make the choice for everyone.
– Shaykh Mohammed Faqih, imam, Memphis Islamic Center
“That’s what’s more reprehensible about this ban, is that it criminalizes the intervention for the sake of the health of the mother on the part of healthcare professionals,” said Rice.
Christians are also divided on the abortion ban.
When Misha Wesley learned that Roe v. Wade was overturned, she wept as some of her Christian friends celebrated.
“I was feeling the burden of women. I was feeling the complications of pregnancy, the financial burdens of pregnancy, of bringing a life into this world. I was feeling the burden of those heavy decisions of women who go are in marginalized communities, the drug addicts who are pregnant. I was just feeling it all,” said Wesley, who works as a faith outreach specialist at the Haven, an LGBTQ-friendly organization in Memphis offering comprehensive services for those at-risk for or living with sexually transmitted diseases.
Marta Hernandez, who serves on the Haven faith advisory board, also struggles with supporting women’s reproductive autonomy while standing at odds with her religious friends and family.
“How may I confront this with my beliefs while at the same time with my understanding that there are certain times (abortion) is needed, and I am not the judge? And how can I help other people understand that?” She asked. “As Christian people, we shouldn’t make those decisions.”
While some Christians have an “extreme interpretation,” said Faqih, Islam calls for a consensus, non-polarizing, approach to abortion.
“Is there a middle ground on abortion that we can agree on?” he asked.
Jewish women at Hadassah, on the other hand, plan to combat the abortion ban by increasing voter turnout.
“We have a legislature that is more likely never going to change their mind so it’s important to change voter habits, on state level and national level,” said Coleman.
Across the nation, Jewish groups have launched their own lawsuits against their state’s restrictions on abortion. In Florida, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor filed a lawsuit arguing that abortion laws violate Jewish teachings, which state that abortion is necessary if it protects the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.
Hadassah is considering launching its own lawsuit against Tennessee’s abortion ban and argue that their religious beliefs allow for abortion. But for now, they wait to see how other lawsuits based on Judaism fair against the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s important not to recreate the wheel but support the ongoing one,” said Coleman.
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