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In the Torah it seems clear that there is some kind of prohibition on abortion,[1] but it is unclear what the prohibition is.[2] Due to the dispute about why abortion is prohibited, there is also a debate about in which cases abortion is prohibited and in which it is permitted. Despite the fact that abortion is prohibited, in Halacha, as opposed to in Catholic and other Christian doctrines, all Poskim agree that abortion is permitted at least in one case. Please note, that while this article describes different opinions on when abortion is forbidden and when it is permitted, a layman should not make any decisions on his own in this serious matter but rather should consult a rabbi of eminent stature who is knowledgeable in the matter.[3]

What is the Prohibition?

  1. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein - abortion is considered murder. However, this murder does not come with a death penalty. There are some cases of murder when the murderer does not get the death penalty. One of these cases is someone who murders one who is terminally ill (and cannot live 12 months).[4]
  2. Rabbi Issar Unterman - abortion is considered אבזרייהו דרציחה akin to murder.[5]
  3. It is a violation of the positive commandment of פרו ורבו. Part of the commandment is to allow every potential soul to come into being, and if one does abortion, they cannot do this.[6]
  4. Spilling the seed/Onanism. The fetus is more similar to the basic seed than to a human, so destroying the fetus would be like destroying the seed.[7]
  5. Aborting the fetus is injuring the mother (Chavalah).[8] Exodus 21 says that if two men are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and there is no death, but the fetus is miscarried, then they have to pay a monetary payment. So the fetus is more a part of the mother than a separate life.[9]
  6. It is a Rabbinical prohibition. There is no clear prohibition in the Torah, so our only real sources are the rabbinical sources.[10]
  7. According to the Zohar, one who kills a fetus is guilty of destroying God’s handiwork.[11] it is unclear if this constitutes a different view of the technical prohibition, or if this is just a reasoning explaining the severity of abortion. A punishment unlike that for murder is detailed.
  8. There is a discussion whether abortion by drinking a certain type of medicine is considered murder or only rabbinic.[12]

Practical Abortion Cases

  1. If the fetus is directly threatening the mother’s life and aborting the fetus will save the mother's life, then it is permissible to abort the fetus according to all, since we prioritize the living over one that has not yet been born[13] and because the fetus is considered similar to a rodef (one who is chasing another to kill them).[14]
  2. In Jewish Law, one must refuse to take an innocent life, even if one is threatened with death. Should this requirement extend to ending the life of an unborn fetus? There was a case during World War I in which a doctor was told to abort a baby carried by a mother that had been raped by a German officer. The German told the doctor to abort or be killed. In this kind of case there are two opinions. Rabbi Unterman states that since the prohibition is not murder, but akin to murder, you are allowed to kill the fetus.[15] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein disagrees and says that abortion is murder, but it is still unclear if you have to die rather than abort.[16]
  3. According to some poskim, you are allowed to abort before 40 days of gestation in situations where there is a medical need to, because no organs or limbs have formed yet and the fetus is not considered alive.[17]
  4. When a fetus is tested and it is determined that it has a disability or deformity, many poskim[18] state that there is no allowance for abortion. Rabbi Waldenberg disagrees and rules that when the resulting child’s deformity will cause stress that the parents will not be able to handle, it is permitted to abort. Rabbi waldenberg says “ there is no greater pain than to have a child that will die and there is nothing you can do to fix it.” For most types of deformities, Rabbi Waldenberg permits abortion only until 3 months. If the child has Tay Sachs he allows abortions even up until 7 months.[19]
  5. An issue can also arise when the fetus in question would be born a Mamzer, a child from an illegitimate sexual relationship. Because of the adulterous affair the woman is deserving of the death penalty. Since the fetus is a part of the mother, and not it’s own entity, it too is technically liable for the death penalty and one can therefore, according to Rav Yaakov Emden, abort it.[20]
  6. A question arises if the mother will experience severe mental distress if the baby is born. Rabbi Waldenberg holds that abortion is not murder at all, and that mental distress can be equated with physical pain. Therefore, abortion would be allowed if one’s rabbi determines that the mental stress is the same as the physical would be.[21] Rabbi Unterman takes a similar approach to the issue. Rabbi Unterman does believe that abortion is considered akin to murder, and therefore cannot be allowed in cases of mental anguish. However, if the psychological distress that the mother would feel would cause suicidal tendencies, Rabbi Unterman would permit abortion.[22]
  7. If a mother is in danger of her life if she continues to carry the fetus,
    1. if one doctor says she can continue with the pregnancy and one doctor disagrees that she cannot because of the danger to her life, she may continue with the pregnancy or may abort.[23]
    2. if two doctors say she can continue with the pregnancy and one doctor says she should abort to save her life, she may not abort.[24]
    3. if one doctor says she can continue with the pregnancy and two doctors say she should abort to save her life, she should abort, but if she wants to she may continue the pregnancy.[25]

Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research is a very sensitive and contemporary topic therefore many Poskim have yet to offer clear rulings. These are some of the important factors that one must take into consideration regarding stem-cell research.

  1. Is in vitro fertilization permitted to begin with? Most authorities permit In-vitro Fertilization.[26] This is because it is not considered spilling the seed due to the fact that the long term goal of In- Vitro fertilization is to create life.
  2. May a very early embryo be sacrificed for stem cells that could save lives or at least cure disease? Most authorities would permit it for three reasons.
    1. Even an implanted embryo before forty days of gestation is considered by some authorities not to be a life at all.[27]
    2. An unimplanted embryo may as well be considered not a life at all because it is outside of the womb.[28]
    3. Given that destroying a unimplanted pre-forty day embryo is almost certainly not considered murder, the lifesaving potential of stem cell research can be considered the more important value.
  3. May we fertilize ova specifically to create an embryo to be sacrificed for stem cells? Many authorities are uncomfortable with this procedure ethical even if it is unclear whether there is a specific halachic prohibition.[29]


  1. Tosafot Sanhedrin 59a “Leka Midam” Since there is no prohibition a non-Jewish person has that a Jewish person does not, we can derive that it is forbidden for Jews as well.
  2. There seems to be a contradiction in two sources from the Torah. In Bereshit Chapter 9, it says that abortion is prohibited for non-Jewish people, and one will receive the death penalty for killing a “man within a man.” Sanhedrin 57b. In Shemot Chapter 21, however, it says, if a Jew kills a fetus he is just liable a monetary punishment. Therefore, although there certainly is a prohibition, opinions vary widely as to what the prohibition is, see section “What is the Prohibition?” below.
  3. Rabbi Chaim Jachter quotes from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein that just like an ordinary physician wouldn't perform a complicated surgery such as a liver transplant, so too an ordinary Rabbi should not render an opinion on abortion, rather a Rabbi of eminent stature should render a decision.
  4. Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, Part 2, Chapter 69. Rav Moshe's proofs are from Tosfot Sanhedrin 59a s.v. layka's question as well as Rambam (Retsicha 1:9). He answers why Rashi (Sanhedrin 72b s.v. yatza) is not a proof against him. Rav Chaim Halevi (Retsicha 1:9) explains Rambam like Rav Moshe that it is murder to abort a fetus. Achiezer 3:72 has another explanation of the Rambam according to which abortion isn't murder.
  5. I.Y. Unterman, Noam VI (1963), 1-11 as cited in David Feldman, Birth Control In Jewish Law
  6. Yevamos 63b
  7. Talmud Bavli: Niddah 13a; Chavos Yair, Siman 31
  8. Maharit 97 at the beginning writes that abortion is a violation of chavalah. However, afterwards he implies that it is murder.
  9. Exodus 21:22
  10. Sanhedrin 72b; Tzitz Eliezer, Jerusalem, 1963, volume VII, number 48, p. 190.
  11. Hok L’Yisrael, Shemot for Monday, Zohar, Shemot 3b
  12. Yabia Omer EH 4:1:5 quotes Rav Yehuda Ayash (Bet Yehuda EH 1:14) and Rav Chaim Palagi (Chaim Vshalom 1:40) who hold that abortion by drinking a certain type of medicine is only a rabbinic prohibition.
  13. Mishna Ohelet Perek 7 Mishana 7
  14. Rambam Hilchot Rotzeach Chapter 1:9
  15. I.Y. Unterman, Noam VI (1963), 1-11 as cited in David Feldman, Birth Control In Jewish Law.
  16. Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, Part 2, Chapter 69.
  17. Based on Yevamot 69b which refers to a pre 40 day fetus as “merely water” c.f. Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz in "The Preembryo in Halacha". Rabbi Melamed (Peninei Halacha "Ben Adam Lechavero UShemirat HaChaim" p. 258) writes that most poskim hold that abortion before 40 days is permitted, but it is noteworthy that some poskim such as Rav Unterman forbid. Rav Moshe (Igrot Moshe CM 2:69) implies that abortion is considered murder even before 40 days according to Ramban and Bahag who hold that one could violate Shabbat in order to say a fetus that is less than 40 days.
  18. Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, Part 2, Chapter 69.
  19. Ẓiẓ Eliezer, 13:102; 14:101
  20. Sheelas Yaavetz Teshuvah 43, Rav Emden
  21. Ẓiẓ Eliezer, 13:102; 14:101
  22. “The Law of Pikkuah Nefesh and Its definition” in HaTorah V’HaM’dinah, IV (1952) 22 - 29 as cited in David Feldman, Birth Control In Jewish Law. Rabbi Unterman is basing his ruling on a ruling by a case where a where a rabbi was asked if a man could have non kosher soup to prevent him from going insane. Rabbi Israel Meir Mizrachi ruled that serious danger to one’s mental health is the same as a risk to one’s physical health. Resp. Pri HaAretz, Vol III (Jerusalem, 1899), Y.D., No. 2. This ruling was also applied to a specific situation that dealt with birth control, a situation more similar to abortion than non kosher soup. Resp. Binyan David, No. 68; Minhat Yitzchak, Vol. I, No. 115; and Igg’rot Mosheh, E.H., No. 65, would allow the contraceptive mokh when pregnancy would create a serious mental-health risk as cited in David Feldman, Birth Control In Jewish Law
  23. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (Shabbat Shabbaton p. 173)
  24. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (Shabbat Shabbaton p. 173)
  25. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (Shabbat Shabbaton p. 170-3) quoting Rav Wosner and Chazon Ish. He quotes Rav Elyashiv that the Chazon Ish only ruled not to abort based on the one doctor against two after he determined that the danger was remote. However, Rav Elyashiv said, without that determination a person should follow the two doctors over the one doctor.
  26. Yitzchak Bretowitz, “The Pre-Embryo in halacha”
  27. Based on Yevamot 69b which refers to a pre 40 day fetus as “merely water”
  28. Yitzchak Bretowitz, “The Pre-Embryo in halacha”
  29. Othodox Union (2001) Letter to President Bush Regarding Stem Cell Research