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Is Israel’s New Abortion Law Consistent with Its Jewish Heritage?

The state of Israel has long illustrated the cultural fruitfulness of rooting a nation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, far outpacing its Muslim neighbors in the areas of democracy, religious freedom, education, scientific achievement, and the just treatment of women. But in January 2014, Israel approved an abortion law1 that is incongruous with its biblical heritage. Now, any Israeli woman between ages 20 and 33 may receive a state-funded abortion for any reason. (Previously, the government helped pay for abortions only in medical emergencies, cases of sexual abuse, and for women under 20 and over 40.) The leader of the committee that drafted the law, Jonathan Halevy, explained, “We want large families in Israel. We definitely encourage birth. But when pregnancy occurs and it is undesired or inadvertent, I think we should supply the means to end the pregnancy properly.” Halevy said his committee hopes to expand state funding of abortion to all women under 40. This change in policy makes Israel’s abortion laws among the most liberal in the world.

The new law represents a striking departure from Israel’s Jewish heritage. In light of Bible passages like Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”) and Psalm 139:13 (“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”), Jews historically have affirmed the sanctity of unborn life and viewed abortion as evil.

For example, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived around the time of Jesus, prescribed harsh punishment for anyone who struck a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. He called the aborted baby “a human being . . . destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light.” The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a collection of ethical instructions written between 50 BC and AD 50, was explicit about abortion: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as prey.” The apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles (first century BC) said women who aborted their children would suffer God’s wrath along with sorcerers, adulterers, and thieves.

First Enoch, among the books of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha produced in the first or second century BC, said an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb.” Referring to the Old Testament, the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37-100) argued, “The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race.” Ancient Jews agreed almost universally that abortion was a sin.

Early Christians, many of whom were Jews, continued the tradition of opposing abortion. The Didache, a popular first- or second-century Christian work, counselled, “Love your neighbor as yourself . . . You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn.” Likewise, The Epistle of Barnabas from the same era said, “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn.” Though these works were not included in the New Testament canon, they were read widely in the churches and reflected the position of early believers.

Contemporary abortion advocates, and perhaps even Israeli policy makers, may argue that the Bible is ambiguous when it comes to abortion. But that was not the position of Jews and Christians 2,000 years ago. They were convinced that Scripture came down strongly in defense of unborn life—and for good reason. Friends of Israel who “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) should add to their petitions that the nation would return to its heritage and protect unborn life.


Erin Roach, “Israel Expands Eligibility for State-Funded Abortions,” Baptist Press, January 8, 2014, (accessed January 16, 2014).