In Tennessee, Fighting Back as a Jew Against the Abortion Ban Hearing

On August 13, testifying against the comprehensive abortion ban being considered by the state legislature…

To the Senate Judiciary committee—thank you for having me here today. I am honored to speak before you. My name is Rabbi Laurie Rice. I have been an ordained rabbi for 18 years. A graduate of Northwestern University, I received my Masters of Hebrew Letters and rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I serve on the Ethics Committee for Alive Hospice and as an Ambassador for the Amend Program through the YWCA, which works to end domestic violence in Tennessee by helping men and boys become better versions of themselves.

In the summer of 1996, I moved to Israel for my first year of rabbinic school. I lived in Jerusalem, with others studying to become rabbis, for our first of five years’ study towards ordination. That year, I met the man who two years later would become my husband. To be honest, when we went for our pre-marital counseling, we were each asked how many children we wanted to have. My husband said five. I said one. We had some things to talk about!

I said I wanted one child, but really I wasn’t even sure about having any. I was only 28. But then one day, not long after, I was ready. And when that happened, I couldn’t have a child fast enough. I was so excited to be a mom, and I couldn’t wait for my husband to be a father. I knew he would be amazing.

It didn’t take us long to get pregnant, much to my husband’s dismay. We were on our way. We bought the necessary prenatal vitamins, said goodbye to wine and raw fish, and visited the doctor for all the prescribed appointments. And then, at 22 weeks, we learned that our fetus wasn’t growing as it should, and it turned out, after a series of tests, that our fetus was a triploid, meaning it had 3 sets of every chromosome where a healthy fetus has two. I hoped this meant our baby would be bionic, but what it really meant was that our fetus would likely not come to term, and if it was born it would not make it even one year.

We. Were. Crushed. We were given two choices. To go forward and see what happened. Or to have a second trimester abortion. I sobbed. Day in and day out, I sobbed. I sobbed about the baby I would not mother. I sobbed about the dreams that died in that very moment. And I knew right away that I wanted to have the abortion. Because I wanted to have a baby. I wanted to be a mother. And I couldn’t do that until we could start over and try again.

This is not a debate between those who are for abortion and those who are against it. No one I know is FOR abortion. If a woman finds herself in a situation in which abortion is a consideration, she is in distress, and the alternative is most often either mentally or physically impairing. Or both. The debate over abortion is, in fact, a debate over a woman’s right to choose—but in our great nation today, that right has become primarily a matter of faith.

As I am in the business of faith, allow me to say a little more about this. When Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, she invoked her faith. She said, “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

In January, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, cited the Book of Psalms when he came out against a proposed bill that would lift restrictions on abortions. He quoted Psalm 139: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born.”

Let me tell you how I, a rabbi, read the scripture. I, too, believe that every life is precious and a gift from God.

However, while my Christian colleagues and friends understand a fetus to represent human life, the Jewish tradition, the foundation of Christianity, does not believe that the fetus has a soul, and it is therefore not a life, as it is written in Genesis: “And God breathed the soul of life into human, and they lived.” Furthermore, Judaism refers to the fetus in Hebrew as a rodef, a pursuer. The rodef or fetus only exists because it feeds off the mother. In fact, if the presence of the fetus puts the mother’s life in danger, abortion is condoned. The wellbeing of the mother takes precedence. Existing life takes precedence over potential life, and a woman’s life and her pain take precedence over a fetus.

But the strongest argument in our Bible for permitting abortion comes from Exodus, Chapter 21, verses 22-23: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take a life for a life.”

The words “gives birth prematurely” could mean the woman miscarries, and the fetus dies. Because there’s no expectation that the person who caused the miscarriage is liable for murder, Jewish scholars argue this proves a fetus is not considered a separate person or soul.

Jewish law is also helpful when discussing abortion. The Talmud, our compendium of Jewish law, explains that for the first 40 days of a woman’s pregnancy, the fetus is considered “mere fluid” and considered part of the mother until birth. The baby is considered a nefesh, Hebrew for “soul” or “spirit” once its head has emerged, and not before.

Furthermore, Jewish tradition and scholars have also acknowledged a pregnant woman’s potential “great need” to terminate a pregnancy. It is clear that in Jewish law an Israelite is not liable to capital punishment for feticide…. An Israelite woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake…. This ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great pain, which falls within the rubric of a “great need.”

Now you might be saying, “I really hope she stops quoting scripture and makes a point!” Christians and Jews could go back and forth all day long on the interpretation of scripture, because interpretation cannot be objective by the very definition of the word “interpretation.” Throughout history, scripture has been used to legitimize all kinds of evil and depravity, such as the decimation of Jews in Europe, and the right to enslave black people here in this great nation. I can tell Christians that they are interpreting scripture incorrectly, and they can say the same about me. Can any of us truly know what it is that God wants? Who among us is so full of hubris to say that we know? In a nation founded as a wellspring for all faiths, races, and creeds, do we really want to allow for one religious group to prescribe rules and decisions for all, based on one particular interpretation of scripture?

That is not America. America is about religious freedom, is it not? There is no doubt that faith informs each of our views on a variety of subjects, but that’s exactly what they are—personal views, not something for everyone else to comment or legislate on.

If this hearing is about the constitutionality of this particular bill banning all abortion, ask yourself: Are you prepared to admit that you prefer an America that is not based on religious freedom? Are we, the great state of Tennessee, prepared to join the march in making that declaration?

True religious freedom, if you value that, is a shield to protect all religions, and it is never a sword to discriminate. My tradition, the Jewish tradition, teaches that women don’t have abortions they want. I can promise you that I did not want a triploid fetus. (And Senator Bowling, since you brought up the issue of percentages, noting that only 1% of pregnancies derive from a situation of rape, allow me to point out that only 1-2% of pregnancies result in a triploid abnormality. If you are the 1% with a triploid, or the 1% who is raped, then it’s 100% for you. Period.) I did not want to learn at nearly 6 months of pregnancy that I would likely not give birth to a live baby, and that if I did it would most certainly die within the first year. Women do not have abortions they want. They have abortions they need.

To ban abortion is to blatantly diminish the rights of women to advocate for what they need. How many of you men would honestly feel comfortable with your same rights diminished?

Laurie Rice is the co-senior Rabbi of Congregation Micah in Brentwood, Tennessee. She serves alongside her husband, Rabbi Philip “Flip” Rice. When not leading and pastoring to her community or taking on a variety of social justice issues, she runs miles on the roads and trails of Nashville and hangs out with her kids.