Ambivalence: When the Abortion on the Table Is Your Own

I opted for local, rather than general, anesthesia, and it hurt like hell. But I wanted to stay present to my choice, both physically and emotionally. I asked the medical team to describe everything they did. When they sucked out the fluid that the embryo was in and prepared to dispose of it, I asked if I could take it home.

“It’s against the law,” the nurse said, but then set it aside for me.

“This is such a big choice,” I had told the team. “So sad.”

As I cried in pain, Steven cried, too. So did the doctor I had wanted to hate.

Before our first trip to the clinic, I had looked for Jewish prayers or rituals that sanctified abortion, but the little I found addressed only losses that followed “medically necessary” procedures. I knew I needed to bring a sense of kedusha, of blessing and wholeness, to the abortion while I was experiencing it, but even as I lay on the operating table squeezing Steven’s hand so hard that his knuckles turned white, I was unable to access that kedusha. Then something happened.

My presentness to the physical pain, my acknowledgment of the power I was assuming through my decision to end potential life, and my understanding that I was not alone in this journey … coalesced, without my help, into words:

Brucha Aht Rachamaima, sheh’ozeret lanu, livchor chayyim. Amen.

[Bless You, Rachamaima, Compassionate Nurturer of Life, who helps us choose life. Amen.]


I said the words to Steven and asked him to whisper them over and over in my ear. To me, a bracha — a prayer — represents the pinnacle of presentness. Then I asked for the gas (I was so “present” that I gave my body permission to have an easier ride), and the pain became bearable.


Only later did I think more about this, about how the prayer had self-birthed. To resolve my ambivalence, I had needed to radically accept the moral gravity and imperfection of my choice, and I would now live a little bit injured — like Jacob who perennially limped after wrestling the angel.

Did the language of the bracha come to me once I’d really taken in the responsibility for my choice, did it simply name and confirm it, or did the bracha, itself gestating, spur my process of accepting its burden? Maybe hearing the bracha whispered, over and over, gave me strength to bear the weight of the inescapable: we needed to end life in order to choose life.

I felt grateful for those few quiet words that breathed soothing sense into what I was enacting — I was, after all, integrating the stories of Genesis 1 and 2 with this abortion; at the same time, dominating and safeguarding Creation. In my experience, prayers are usually prods, shepherds’ crooks that aim to gather up a moment. But this bracha was what was; there was no need to gather.

Steven and I were choosing life: shoring up our precarious marriage, our tattered family, committing to what was most holy in our relationships. We were acting as pro-life as we knew how.

There’s been such a silencing around the life-and-death power that a woman wields when she chooses to abort a fetus. Laying on the operating table, the doctor and nurse still at work, I felt the liberation that comes from making that power sacred.

I thought about Deuteronomy 30, the verses that describe the crazy accessibility of Torah, the idea that the mitzvah of living according to Torah “is not in the heavens or across the seas, that someone else must go and get it for you.” No, it resides in our bodies — “in our own mouths and in our own hearts to observe it.” Judaism needs to be embodied in us to be actionable and lasting, and each of us must filter her ethical choices through the uniqueness of her own beating heart and bleating mouth.

 “And so I place before you life and death, blessing and curse,” the Deuteronomic text continues: “Choose life that you may stay alive—you and your seed.” I was blown away. I was acting from a place where all my parts were present, not from a theoretical place across oceans and seas. I am acting wholly, I thought; I have never been more intimate with a mitzvah.


We took the container home, dug a small hole under a camellia shrub, in bloom in January, and poured the embryonic fluid into the soil. The camellia sits against a fence behind the swing set that we built for our kids, and it’s sometimes obscured by other plants.

Brucha aht Rachamaima…,” we said. “Bless you…who helps us choose life.”


All of this happened nine years ago, and since then I have observed an informal yahrzeit, just by myself, beside the camellia that sits over against the fence behind the swing set that we built for our children.

“This is the time of year we did it” — I say something like that. “There was a potential for life that we stopped. I kind of wonder a little who this person could have been….” I don’t observe a particular day; I just wait until I see a flower.


In 2009, our family of four went to Kazakhstan for three months, and by the time we were ready to come home, the four of us were five. We had adopted a baby girl. Before settling on Kazakhstan for the adoption, I knew Suri was out there; we just had to figure out where exactly she was.

Her brothers say things like, “She’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” and, “There could not be a better person to have joined our family.”

 But when I watch her swinging up into the sky bursting with joy, in just that spot, I feel a sadness borne of experience and the passing of time. I face the excruciating understanding that when we choose life, we sometimes choose loss as well.

Choosing to adopt and then finding our daughter was a long, arduous process fraught with tremendous risk, doubt and desire. But it was our way of choosing life, and it would not have happened if not for the first choice. 


Deborah Eisenbach-Budner has worked for two decades as a Jewish education director. She has a special commitment to ritual innovation, including the spirituality of parenting and other everyday occupations.