No man is an island, Entire of itself…
Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know, For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
by John Donne
Abortion is a very private and personal decision. Nevertheless, Josh Healy, the comedian, pushes all the relevant buttons as he describes his inner monologue on hearing his university girlfriend of six months tell him that she is pregnant!
You are probably aware that those who would forbid abortion claim that society has an overriding interest in abortion because it involves respect for the unfolding life of the human fetus. They claim that the fetus, from conception, acquires the rights of any living human person, and anyone who assists in the process of abortion is an accessory to the crime of “murdering a human being.”
On the other hand, while murder is a categorical prohibition of the Jewish faith, and although the first mitzvah, religious instruction, given to Adam and Eve is “Pru urvoo” – Be fruitful and multiply, the Rabbis of the Talmud who interpret these instructions always prioritize the mother’s mental and physical needs over the fetus’s right to life. Thus, Jewish law – halacha – may approve an abortion for any Jewish woman based on the woman’s psychological and physical needs at any time during the pregnancy.
But what about the actual social ramifications of both abortion and childbirth? Is there a risk of overpopulation?
Indeed the fear of overpopulation was widespread and accepted in the science of the nineteenth century.
The British economist, Thomas Malthus, was convinced that population growth would lead to mass starvation: This is what he wrote in his “scientific” formulation.
“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”
Malthus has been disproven by history. Since his time, scientists have invented fertilizer and improved agricultural techniques to feed expanding populations. The source of starvation in the twentieth century has not been the lack of food but somewhat misguided government policy and war, as in the Soviet attempt to enforce Communist ideology on Ukrainian farmers in the 1930s, which led to the starvation of millions amid the abundance of Ukraine’s bread basket. Professor of History Timothy Snyder places the blame for the “Holodomor” – Ukrainian for “to kill by starvation” on Stalin in his 2010 book Bloodlands and he points out that the Nazis also practiced starvation as an instrument of war by rationing food and systematically starving prisoners of war and Jews in concentration camps and ghettos.
The fear of overpopulation led the Chinese government to institute the one-child policy, which led to the horrifying practice of state-sponsored abortions. As a result, children were left to die on the side of the road, and many female children were abandoned in orphanages, a few of whom were lucky enough to be adopted through Chinese-created international channels. I have friends in Montreal who have adopted Chinese infants in this way. This was also the subject of a documentary entitled One Child Nation, which told the story of one of these children who chose to return to China to find her family of origin and uncovered this harrowing and unsavoury history of state control over reproduction. In recent years, China has renounced the one-child policy since it has been disastrous over the long term, resulting in a shortage of women of marriageable age and a shortage of children who can provide workforce and care for the elderly.
The Value of Children to Humanity throughout the Ages
A recent podcast studying the archeological record of children in the Pleistocene Ice Age, based on April Nowell’s book, Growing Up in the Ice Age: Fossil and Archaeological Evidence of the Lived lives of Plio-Pleistocene Children*5, explains how having children is a clear benefit to the advance of civilization.
“Nowell’s studies look at cumulative culture: the process of adults passing down knowledge to their children, and so on through successive generations.”
Nowell demonstrates how:
“Youths weren’t simply an empty repository. They remembered some lessons, forgot others and chose which lessons to build on throughout their lives to pass on to their own children.”
If we trace the Torah’s genealogical record, we can see how successive generations have influenced the Jewish story and ensured the Jewish legacy.
The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, is devoted to the propagation of the first families starting with Adam and Eve, who also encounter the first fratricide – Cain and Abel. But Adam and Eve continue the human race by having a third son Seth. Ten generations later, Seth gives rise to Abraham. When Abraham’s brother, Nahor, dies, Abraham marries his brother’s wife, Sarah and adopts his nephew Lot before embarking on his theologically motivated journey detailed in the Bible.
Acquiring progeny was not easy for any of the patriarchs, each one, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had his struggle, and the outcome was unpredictable. Abraham has to struggle with the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac had to deal with the sibling rivalry between his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob had to deal with his ten sons trying to do away with their brother, Joseph, due to their overwhelming jealousy of Joseph’s importance in their father’s eyes.
The Torah narrative includes both family joys and tribulations at every turn. For example, Abraham’s great-grandson Judah must be tricked into marrying his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to continue Judah’s son’s line. As we learn in the Book of Ruth, Judah’s blood relative, Boaz, although elderly and distant, marries Ruth, the Moabite, to continue her late husband’s legacy. Their great-grandson is destined to be the biblical King David. These stories illustrate the biblical “Levirate law,” which prescribes that if a married man dies without offspring, his closest relative, usually the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow and have a child with her to continue the bloodline of the deceased man. This social responsibility is a way to ensure the continuity of that particular family.
Recently I attended Shaker Village in the Berkshires. The Shakers were a creative and wise Christian religious sect famous in the US during the 19th century.
- They believed in celibacy based on the idea that sex, even within marriage, constitutes original sin.
Due to the lack of procreation, they are no longer with us as a community. Only their philosophy, buildings and effects remain in the form of a museum, Han cock Shaker Village= which I visited.
The desire to have children seems to be hard-wired in many species, including the human one. The Talmud, the central authority on Jewish theology and law, ascribes a passion for children as especially hard-wired for the female species. This is the source of differential religious commitments for men and women. For example, women are exempt from most time-based laws or mitzvot, such as prayer services, due to the physical demands of child birthing and rearing.
Miscarriage – naturally occurring abortion – is a mini-death and generally an occasion for private grief and mourning. In the past, miscarriage and fetal death have been so common that no specific religious commemoration has been prescribed. However, in recent times many books and podcasts have noted the absence of ritualized mourning and sought to correct this through affinity groups. Le Groupe de partage L’Empreinte is one such group located in Montreal.
On the other hand, birthing children is a serious and long-term commitment that not everyone is willing to embrace. This has become more apparent in recent times and has been especially noted in the decreasing childbirth rates in many western countries where contraception and abortion have been more readily available. Interestingly, among western democracies, Israel seems to be the exception to this rule of decreasing birth rates and not just among the less educated or more religious groups.*
Every male or female child’s birth and naming is an occasion for public celebration within the Jewish tradition. On the 8th day, a male child is introduced to the covenant of Abraham through circumcision and given a Jewish name. This is the occasion for a public celebration called the Brit or covenant. Circumcision is a symbol of the bond between Abraham and his G-d, who made specific promises to Abraham about the destiny of his progeny. A female child is also named and celebrated in a public ceremony, but female circumcision (FGM), common in African societies, was never practiced among Jews.
Children are a potential blessing and benefit to society; at every age, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours are called on to be partners in this process. And on the other hand, any abortion, whether natural or induced, is not just a loss for the individual but also a social loss that ought to be collectively mourned.
In summary, children embody our faith in a better future. However, this better future cannot happen without the concerted efforts of all of us to nurture and sustain the next generation.