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I Dissent: Why Pro-Choice is Pro-Jewish

Rabbi Sarah Marion
October 16, 2020
Parshat Beresheit
“I Dissent:  Why Pro-Choice is Pro-Jewish”

Perhaps like many of you, I spent this past week watching and following the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett – a nomination that has serious implications for many existing laws, including, of course, Roe v. Wade. This very serious and very real threat to Roe shakes me to my core.

Every so often, there comes a time when a rabbi asks herself: Is now the time to speak out on a topic that may be controversial? Is now the time to weigh in with some Jewish context and perspective, and offer a sermon on one of the most pressing issues of our time?

Ultimately, I decided that it was important, and necessary, to speak on the topic of abortion tonight. But before I continue, I want to lay out a few things first:

If what I am about to say diverges from your own point of view, I hope you will tell me. If you don’t agree with me, I really, truly want to hear where you stand, and why. While sermons don’t often change minds, they can open the door for the kind of conversation that leads to deeper respect and greater understanding – and the sermons that do that, I think, are really the most successful sermons, of all. And before going any further, I also want to make a few of my own beliefs abundantly clear:

  • Life is a precious, and sacred gift.
  • Every pregnancy and every birth are extremely personal and unique experiences, each one unlike any other
  • The decision to terminate a pregnancy is complicated, painful and should never be taken lightly.
  • Every woman deserves the right to choose what happens to her own body.
  • Jewish tradition – and, specifically that Torah behind me – supports our access to safe and legal abortion.

And so as I spent these past few days watching and following the Barrett confirmation hearings, I had a lot on my mind.

For one, I thought about my dear friend Allie, who wanted, more than anything, to have a baby, and, then, finally, after rounds of IVF and fertility treatments, she was ecstatic to learn that she was pregnant. A few months later, I’ll never forget her tears of agony on the other end of the phone. “The tests came back. The baby has serious genetic complications. They say she likely won’t live more than a few days once she is born. We’ve decided to end it now.”

And as I spent these past few days watching the Barrett confirmation hearings, I thought about my own daughter. And I thought about all of the other Little 5 year old girls who are still so blissfully unaware of all the issues that are being debated and all the decisions that are at stake – decisions that could have very real and very serious consequences for their physical and emotional health, safety and well-being. 

And as I spent these past few days watching the hearings, I thought about the fascinating interplay between Amy Coney Barrett’s public vs. private persona, her anticipated court rulings, and her faith. And I thought about the way that Catholic faith is often used as bedrock for pro-life arguments, while our Jewish textual traditions have something equally significant to say, and yet aren’t often a part of the conversation.

And as I spent these past few days watching the confirmation hearings, I thought about RBG. What would Ruth say. What would Ruth do. Well – one thing, I think we know – is that Ruth would write a dissenting opinion. Ruth would showcase the value of making her perspective known, for the record, regardless of the final, prevailing outcome. Because, as Ruth so famously taught,dissenting today is a way to write, and speak, for tomorrow.

And so tonight I have decided to say that I dissent. 

I dissent to laws that take away my right, and my daughter’s right, to decide what happens to our bodies.

And I believe that Judaism dissents to these laws, as well. 

In Torah this week, we are back at the very beginning – back to the very first lines of Torah and back to the story about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Within this story, we find the commandment given by God to Adam and Eve – the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply”[1] – the commandment that many Orthodox Jews take at face value and use as rationale to resist birth control and create large families. And so, indeed, according to our tradition, bringing children into the world and perpetuating life is a precious and sacred obligation.

But, at the same time, according to Jewish tradition, the life and the health of the mother must always, always come first.

Later on in our Torah, in the book of Exodus, we discover the following, hypothetical scenario:

“If, per say, two men are physically fighting one another, and in the process of their dispute, they accidentally push over a pregnant woman who just happens to be passing by…and if, per say, that pregnant woman miscarries, as a result of her fall – do the two men need to provide compensation, for the loss of human life?”[2]

In other words, in midst of this “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” worldview in which our biblical ancestors lived, does the pregnant woman’s miscarriage indicate the loss of human life – and, if so, do the men need to pay or be punished, accordingly?

Significantly, the biblical text says no. Significantly, the biblical text concludes that, should this scenario ever occur, the men should only be held responsible for the injuries to the woman’s body, if there are any.

And so from this rather groundbreaking ruling, our ancient rabbis determined that life does not begin in the womb. Rather, life begins once a baby is born. And, because they did not believe that life begins in the womb – they were abundantly clear in all of their subsequent their writings, that a pregnant woman’s life, health, and wellbeing must always take precedence.[3]

This week, I read a powerful story by a rabbinic colleague – Rabbi Jacyln Cohen – about her own, very recent decision to have an abortion. Her situation was much like my friend Allie’s. She wanted this baby so, so much. But when she learned that the baby would not survive, and when she learned that her own health could be at risk should she try to continue the pregnancy, the choice was clear. And so, as she writes, she chose life. Her life. As well the life of her 5 year old-son, who needs his mother. “My faith – she writes – honors my right to choose my future.”[4]  

From what I understand, it is likely that Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed to the Supreme Court. It is difficult for me to think about, and fathom, what might happen to Roe v. Wade, and a whole host of other laws and protections, once she is. Part of me still wants to be in denial about the whole thing.

But then I found myself inspired by Rabbi Cohen’s very brave and very honest and very vulnerable account of her own experience. And, through her story, I once again realized just how common abortions are, and yet, for some reason, we still don’t talk about them, as plainly and as openly as we should. And the more we don’t talk about all the real life instances in which women have had abortions, the more likely it is for the procedure to become exaggerated, misunderstood, and misconstrued. Without an honest, open sharing of these real life stories, the more likely it is that some will be led to believe that women decide to terminate pregnancies for reasons, and in ways, that are unnecessary, outrageous, and coldhearted.

And so now is the time.

Now, when reproductive rights in America are suddenly hanging by a thread, now is the time to be recognizing and acknowledging and listening to the millions of women who have had abortions – and now is the time to be listening to the millions of women who would be affected by serious limitations on our reproductive care.

And now is the time to say, loudly and clearly, that our faith – our Jewish faith – unequivocally honors a woman’s right to choose.

Now is the time, before the senate confirmation and, more importantly, before the election –

Now is the time to dissent, now is the time to understand, and now is the time to raise up everything that is at stake.  

[1] Genesis 1:28

[2] Exodus 21:22

[3] For this teaching and many other Jewish texts that support reproductive rights, see

[4] Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen’s article: