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< Q8.10 TOC Sect. 9 >

Question 8.11:
What is the Jewish position on contraception and abortion?


Jewish Law has traditionally opposed birth control or abortion when practiced for purely selfish reasons. The first mitzvah we find in the Torah is to have children, to "be fertile and increase". Judaism believes that a home without children is a home without blessing. However, Judaism also believes that as long as a couple is planning to have children, the concept of planned parenthood or spacing of births does not constitute a religious problem in Judaism. Judaism is more concerned with the birth control method used; in particular, some methods are not permitted because of the injunction against "the destruction of seed." For example, contemporary Orthodox rabbinical authority has expressed no objection to the use of the "pill". Still, the use of condoms is forbidden, as are some uterine devices.1

It is also true though, that traditionally Judaism has encouraged having many children. Some of this is based on the argument that, after the Holocaust, Jews should not avoid having children. The minimum number of children one must have to fulfill the Mitzvah "to be fertile and increase" is a matter of rabbinic dispute. Some rabbis say that one must have at least two children, and some say at least one of each sex.

With respect to the liberal movements, such as Reform Judiasm: Again, birth control or abortion is opposed when practiced for purely selfish reasons. Birth control are accepted under certain conditions such as where pregnancy represents a health hazard to the mother or child, or when previous children have been born defective. Liberal judaism extends this concept to include extreme poverty, inadequate living conditions and threats to the welfare of existing children in the family. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) goes so far as to declare that birth control is a necessity under certain family conditions. Most Reform and some Conservative rabbis subscribe to the program of planned parenthood. Liberal judaism has no problem with the use of condoms.

A closely related issue is that of therapeutic abortion, prescribe by a physician to save the life or health of a pregnant woman. In Jewish law such an action is considered entirely justified. The life of the mother, Jews believe, is more important than that of a child not yet born, both to her husband and to any other children she might have.

In Judaism, if a woman is pregnant, and she finds out that there is a possibility that either she or the baby is will die if the pregnancy continues, then the woman must have an abortion. Of course, rarely is the risk so cut-and-dry. In practice, one has to assess the odds of each course of action. If one can, a doctor and a Rabbi should be consulted. In case of doubt, such as an emergency where one can't spend time looking for one's Rabbi, the mother's life takes precedence.

Abortion before 40 days gestation is prohibited, but is not considered murder. There are numerous issues that override the prohibition. For example, the sanity (not just the happiness, but actual competency) of a rape victim. This too has to be evaluated by a Rabbi and a doctor (and a psychologist) to see exactly how much is at risk.

The most important consideration in both questions is: what is the best for the entire family? The sanctity of marriage is not in reproduction. It is in the bond that exist between husband, wife and the children they want and love.

1 For traditional Jews, the use of condoms with respect to AIDS is not an issue, for the assumption (right or wrong) is that extramarital sex does not occur, the marriage is monogomous, and that there has been no homosexual activity. AIDS can still be acquired, but the transmission methods would be non-sexual, or might have been before the person became Orthodox.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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