Another Perspective on Abortion and Planned Parenthood.
Many individuals and organizations recently have demanded the end of Planned Parenthood. Some even suggest that we prohibit abortion services altogether for all women, anywhere and everywhere.
These extreme views to me seem barbaric, as they lack perspective and context about the risks countless women would have to endure if deprived of these vital services.
Planned Parenthood is a tremendous asset, especially for the significant segment of our population that has difficult economic circumstances or that lacks access to good medical care. Planned Parenthood’s services include prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and all gynecological disorders, including cancers. Services also include instruction about contraception and family planning. For pregnant women, services also include maintenance of health for both the mother and fetus. These make unwanted pregnancies less likely, and, therefore, decrease the number of prospective abortions. Healthier women have fewer abortions, better pregnancy outcomes, and healthier babies. Thus, Planned Parenthood’s services in the aggregate actually lower the number of contemplated abortions.
But, the fact is that there are circumstances for which abortion must be a valid option. About the propriety of abortion, I base my thoughts on this difficult subject upon the teachings of the Jewish Talmud. Yes, remarkably, the Talmudic Rabbis debated a great deal on this subject nearly 2000 years ago. Abortion was also then an issue, even though there were then, obviously, none of the medical procedures that are available today. (I do not know how a woman in those days went about to have an “elective” abortion. Perhaps there were some botanical entities that could induce on demand this outcome.)
Talmudic Law makes it very clear that the life of the “living” person, the mother, takes precedence over that of the “unborn.” This is the most importance concept in the debate about the propriety of abortion. Furthermore, Talmudic Law teaches that a fetus is NOT a “person,” until he or she is “born.” And, that the born baby becomes a “complete" person with a “soul” only if he or she survives at least eight days, in order to experience a full Sabbath.
The Talmudic Rabbis concluded then— as do now current modern-day Talmudic scholars— that the “life” of the mother includes both her PHYSICAL and/or MENTAL health. If the mother perceives that her pregnancy substantially endangers either her mental or physical health or well-being, she may ethically and morally choose to proceed with an abortion. There is no requirement that the pregnancy to term has to predictably cause the mother’s death, just that it might substantially harm her. Her “life” in this context implies that she live in as healthy a manner as possible.
There is no strict definition of what constitutes substantial endangerment, as that is left entirely up to the mother, and, when appropriate, as it usually is, to her physicians. Every woman’s perception of her circumstances is different. No one can dictate to her what is or is not a substantial danger from her pregnancy, noting that pregnancy is always a biologically risky entity, even under the best of circumstances.
This is a fact that many of the current extremists who would do away with abortion altogether cannot seem to comprehend. To my view, most of these anti-abortion extremists are either men (who, by definition, will never experience firsthand the inherent risks of of an uncontrolled process, such as is pregnancy, that takes over their body’s anatomy and physiology), or politicians who are in desperate search of some agenda item that might legitimize their candidacies.
There are many medical circumstances for which an abortion is recommended, because to carry the pregnancy to term risks great harm or death to the mother. These include most serious cardiac conditions, cancer, connective tissue disease, severe kidney disease, neurological conditions, psychosis, pelvic anatomical conditions, and many more.
On the other hand, Talmudic Law makes it clear that abortion is NOT permissible simply for financial reasons, for “convenience,” or for frivolous reasons. But, it remains best that the State leave the definition of “convenience” and “frivolous” up to the individual woman and whoever she retains to counsel her. What may seem frivolous to the outsider may be a serious mental or physical health issue for the pregnant woman.
The Talmud also teaches that every person should seek medical care from competent physicians, and to avoid quacks. Bill Clinton had it right when he said that “abortion should be rare, but available and safe.”
I agree that a pregnant woman contemplating an abortion should have access to resources that would counsel her, when appropriate, and without intimidation, about the alternative option to continue the pregnancy to term, and to then place the baby for adoption. Planned Parenthood does offer such counseling.
I acknowledge that there is legitimate debate about what to do about abortion for a pregnancy that is in the sixth month or later, noting that modern neonatal medical resources can often save the life of the premature fetus at this stage. For this complex issue, I do not have definitive conclusions. Late-term abortion is a subject that requires debate and advice from learned people in all disciplines. The Talmudic Rabbis of centuries past could not have foreseen our current medical capabilities to save a fetus outside mother’s womb. The State may, thus, have a legitimate interest to save the life of a viable late-term fetus.
I trust this brief overview makes it clear that access to medically safe abortion is vital to the health and welfare of women, and must be preserved.
Eli Goodman, M.D.
Eli Goodman, MD, is a practicing internal medicine physician and medical consultant, based in Springfield, IL.