Religious freedom or Christian hegemony? A left Jewish perspective on abortion
Anti-abortion advocate Boris Campos waves his Bible as he sings religious songs and harasses women outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., July 7, 2022. | Rogelio V. Solis / AP

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision which ended Constitutionally protected abortion rights in America, Burgess Owens, the former football player and Republican who represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District, joined right-wing Christian groups at the state’s Capitol in demonstrations supporting the ruling. Speaking at the event, Owens said, “This country is built on miracles, and miracles we can expect because we are based on Judeo-Christian values. … [On] June 24 [the day of the ruling], we became a more perfect union, because America prayed for 50 years for this day.”

The refrain of “Judeo-Christian values” is often invoked by the American Right to justify recent measures of gutting abortion rights. On closer examination, however, their conflation of Judaism with Christianity is far from reality. The Jewish approach to abortion is very different from what the Christian Right would have you believe, which is also very different from what many in mainstream Christian denominations believe. And even beyond the current broad Jewish support for abortion, we must continue to work on building a radical women and transgender led Judaism that can organize against the current Christian reactionary backlash.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg of Rabbis for Repro summarized the majority Jewish perspective on the issue in a recent interview with Vox, stating, “Abortion is permitted in Judaism, and when the life of the pregnant person is at stake, it is required.” Ruttenberg cites a case in the Torah as the source of Jewish law on abortion. In this example, two people are fighting, and a pregnant woman is knocked over, causing her to miscarry. Ruttenberg states, “in the book of Exodus it’s very clear that the fetus and pregnant person have different statuses, and causing a miscarriage is not treated as manslaughter. The fetus does not have the same status as a born human. It’s treated as potential life, rather than actual life.” She later cites Talmudic law, in which a fetus is treated as “mere water” with no legal status for the first 40 days—“which incidentally is the same in Islam”—and as an extension of the mother’s body for the remainder of the pregnancy.

According to Rabbi Ruttenberg, “Judaism has said again and again that the life, health, and safety of the pregnant person” are “paramount.” As a result, she sees incoming state laws on abortion as a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. She says, “the state is making determinations about when life begins based on one very specific Christian interpretation of what that means, but as I’ve mentioned, Judaism has a totally different way of thinking about what the fetus is and how we understand what life is, and how abortion fits into that.” Similarly, Rabbi Barry Silver of Florida is launching a legal challenge to that state’s bill on a 15 Week Abortion Ban, which Ruttenberg says she is watching closely. She is optimistic about the Jewish community’s role in this struggle: “The Jewish community is here for this. We’re showing up. And I’m really proud of us.”

While the argument of religious freedom of non-Christians can be useful in dispelling some myths of Christian arguments against abortion rights, it should not form the sole basis of our theoretical opposition. Religious freedom and any similar focus on the religious aspect of the struggle for abortion rights is a battleground set by the reactionary Christian right. Therefore, we need to create our own theoretical basis for our arguments, by recognizing both who is impacted most by the recent SCOTUS decision—particularly working-class women, trans men, and some non-binary people. We must also recognize that it is not only, and not even primarily a religious issue, but rather a class issue, an issue of transphobia, an issue of women’s rights, and an issue of privacy. For example, even if we were to take some of the most progressive modern interpretations of Jewish texts, we often get support for abortion if the parent’s life is threatened. This position is a far cry from the necessary demand for abortion access for all, freely available for anyone whenever needed.

As Friedrich Engels argued in his influential work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, “women’s subordination has specific historical origin in the emergence of private property as a social institution.” Or as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, “the bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production”—an “instrument” that would no longer fulfill the capitalists’ need if abortion were widely available. By forcing women further into subjugation, the capitalist class entrenches its oppressive control everywhere.

Christian religious institutions have historically been among the main supporters of class oppression, from the Catholic Church allying itself with feudal landlords to provide ideological support for feudalism, to Protestantism in the 17th and 18th centuries forming the basis for early capitalist development. In this historical moment, the most reactionary sections of the Christian right have allied themselves with monopoly capital to defend the present economic system, with the Republican Party as their principal instrument. These elements use this moment of deep economic and political crisis to continue the oppression of labor and to move toward a Christian fascist state as their end goal.

To fight and defeat this Christian nationalist threat, we must organize a multi-class, multi-racial, multi-gendered, all-people’s front led by working-class women, and including trans and non-binary people. Mass mobilizations, civil disobedience, protests, and more are needed.

We also must not rely on the courts and the capitalist state to protect our rights in the future. The recent Supreme Court ruling has shown the use of the judicial system to secure liberties for marginalized groups in America to be a placebo. As the current far-right court strips away protections one by one, we must come to understand that these rights, won through popular political struggle, can only be retained through struggle. The capitalist state keeps no promises and holds nothing sacred. The only way to win back the right to abortion will be through the struggle for a wholly more democratic system, freed from the anti-popular influence of reactionary capitalist and religious groups.

From here, a new alternative is needed. Radically inclusive women-, trans-, and nonbinary-led communities of faith must rise to this moment. Right now, progressive religious bodies are ill-prepared for the ongoing rise of fascism. Jewish America is stuck in largely conservative and Zionist denominations. We need to build new community-centered organizations that can both fight the growing Christian Right and also push back against reactionary and unhelpful sentiments in our own communities by becoming unapologetically progressive in our values, creating a Judaism beyond Zionism and a Judaism beyond male chauvinism.

One such example of this kind of Jewish community is Tzedek Chicago, a largely women- and nonbinary-led synagogue which recently declared itself explicitly antizionist as one of its core values, alongside opposition to nationalism, and commitment to nonviolence, equity, and solidarity. A politically active and radical Jewish community has the opportunity to be instrumental in the struggle for abortion rights against reactionary elements of capital and the Supreme Court.

Although the focus here has been on the Jewish community, similar issues exist in all communities of faith across the country. To conclude, somehow it is not surprising that as the percentage of Americans who profess to have any religion at all is declining, as regular church attendance has become a minority phenomenon, as more and more young people are walking away from their punitive evangelical parents’ churches, the Supreme Court is jumping in with rulings reversing decades of church-state separation as if wanting to embed patriarchal church law in our Constitutional system now and quickly before it’s too late.


Emily Thorpe
Emily Thorpe

Emily Thorpe writes from the Twin Cities area.

Noah Sigel
Noah Sigel

Noah Sigel writes from Greater Boston.