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Islamic And Jewish Views On Abortion: When Does A Soul Enter A Fetus – OpEd

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Although the state of Texas has recently passed some very restrictive laws concerning abortion starting only 6 weeks after conception, the supposedly restrictive government of the Islamic State of Iran has done the opposite. In Iran legal abortion is allowed up to 19th week of pregnancy. This is in line with Islamic Shia views of Islamic law.

Abortion in Iran was first legalized in 1978 only one year before the Iranian revolution. Yet in April 2005, the Iranian Parliament approved a new bill easing the restrictions on legal abortion by allowing abortion in cases when the fetus shows signs of handicap, and the Council of Guardians accepted the bill in 15/June/2005.

Abortion in Iran is currently legal in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, and in cases of fetal abnormalities that makes it not viable after birth (such as anencephaly) or makes it difficult for a mother to take care of it after birth. The big change is that there is no requirement for consent from the father.

All the continuing political disputes over abortion in the USA and other countries ignore the fundamental religious issue: when does the fetus in the womb of a woman’s body become a human fetus? At conception it is a living physical body, but when does a soul enter a human fetus?

The Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion procedures whose direct purpose is to destroy a zygote, blastocyst, embryo or fetus, since it holds that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception: but 56% of U.S. Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 42% said it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the 2019 Pew Research Center survey. However, according to a 2017 Pew survey, 83% of American Jews believe that abortion should be legal in most cases. So Jews are the most open minded to supporting a woman’s right to seek a first term abortion

All mammals begin life as a fetus. What makes the fetus/embryo in the womb of a woman’s body into a human fetus/embryo from a religious point of view is the entrance into the fetus/embryo of a spiritual human soul (ensoulment).

According to Muslim legal scholars (fuqaha), who are the only ones who have a fairly clear scriptural bases for their view, the soul (ruh) enters the fetus/embryo at around 120 days (4 months) after conception.

There is no clear statement of when ensoulment occurs in the Hebrew Bible, in the Gospels, or in the ancient scriptures of any of the Indian religions. Only the Qur’an offer’s an answer.

Muslim legal scholars based the time of ensoulment on a Qur’anic verse that states: “And verily We created mankind from a quintessence (of clay). Then We placed him in a place of rest (the womb), firmly fixed (into the uterine lining). Then We made the sperm/egg into a clot of congealed blood. Then of that clot We made a (embryo) lump. Then We made out of that embryo/lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh. Then (finally) We developed out of it another creature (by breathing a human soul into it). So blessed be Allah, the most marvelous Creator” (23:12-14).

There is also a Hadith (religious tradition) that says: “Sayyiduna Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: “Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period.

“Then Allah sends an angel who is ordered to write four things. He is ordered to write down his (each person’s) deeds, his livelihood, his (date of) death, and whether he will be blessed or wretched (in religion). Then the soul is breathed into him…” (al-Bukhari no: 3036).

The second part of the Hadith teaches us that what makes a human soul different from an animal soul is that: God keeps records of how humans behave; humans have very many ways to earn their livelihood, they know in advance that they will die although only God knows exactly when, and whether he or she will end up in the garden or the fire.

Thus, when the age of a fetus reaches about 120 days (4 months), it no longer remains a pre-human living object; rather, it becomes a living human being. At this point, all organ differentiation is almost completed and the child acquires the shape of a human body.

More importantly, now that the soul has entered the body, the fetus is truly human; and may not be killed unless it becomes a danger to the mother. In the case of premature births that survive; the soul enters just prior to birth.

The rabbis in the Talmud all agree that ensoulment does not begin at conception. The question of the fetus’s human vitality is addressed in two places in the Talmud: in Yevamot 69, 2 a fetus in the first forty days of pregnancy is likened to water, “עד ארבעים יום מיא בעלמא”; in Nida 8, 2 the fetus is recognized as a human soul from the second trimester. 13 weeks into the pregnancy.

The Torah (Exodus 21:22-23) states that if two men are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, and if no other harm is done, the person who caused the damage must pay compensatory damages.

The rabbinic interpretation is that if the only harm to the woman is the loss of her fetus, it is treated as a civil tort, and not a criminal case. So abortion is not a prohibited crime, but it is damaging and thus discouraged.

An early, authoritative rabbinic legal text, the Mishnah, discusses the question of a woman in distress during labor. If her life is at risk, the fetus must be destroyed to save her. Once its head starts to emerge from the birth canal, however, it becomes a human life, or “nefesh.” At that point, according to Jewish law, one must try to save both mother and child.

In the time of Aristotle, it was widely believed that a human soul entered the forming embryo at 40 days (male embryos) or 90 days (female embryos), and quickening was an indication of the presence of a soul; although it is clear that female quickening occurs much closer to 40 than to 90 days after conception.

In the Middle Ages, most Roman Catholic theologians (including Thomas Aquinas) taught the “serial ensoulment ” theory which holds that there is a progression from vegetative soul, to animal soul, to human soul as the principle of animation occurred about 2-4 months after conception,. Many learned Catholic authors of the ages of Faith held this theory, and advanced it in their writings; perhaps influenced by superior Muslim medical knowledge at that time during the Christian dark ages.

Because of the much higher rate of miscarriages in the past, one favorite sign of ensoulment was when the mother first detected ongoing movement from the embryo (quickening). Since that varies greatly from mother to mother, it is not a good standard for law making. The first trimester (13 weeks) seems to be a good bases for making legal decisions.

According to a 2017 Pew survey, 83% of American Jews believe that abortion should be legal in most cases. All the non-orthodox Jewish movements support reproductive rights, and even ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders have resisted anti-abortion measures that do not allow religious exceptions.

This broad support reveals the Jewish commitment to the separation of religion and state in the U.S., and a reluctance to legislatively force moral questions on everyone when there is much room for debate.

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Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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