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Does Religious Freedom Include the Right to Have An Abortion?

Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.
—Genesis 2:7

A Jewish group, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor of Boynton Beach, Florida, has challenged a new Florida law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks on the grounds of religious freedom rights.

According to Jewish law, life begins at the first breath. The basis for this position is the passage cited above from Genesis. It is upon that line and others that Judaism takes the position that identity and the rights of personhood come into being at the first breath and not before. Moreover, the Talmud, the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, asserts that a fetus is a part of its mother throughout the pregnancy, dependent fully on her for its life. Therefore, a pregnant woman convicted of murder, for example, may be executed without fear that more than one human life is being taken. And though it is widely agreed that abortion is permitted if continuing the pregnancy poses a threat to the life of the mother, the precise definition of “threat to the life” has varied widely among scholars, some including the mental as well as the physical health of the mother, as in the case of rape and incest.

The synagogue contends that the law “prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and this violates their privacy rights and religious freedom,” adding that people who “do not share the religious views reflected in the act will suffer” and that it “threatens the Jewish people by imposing the laws of other religions upon Jews.”

Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor’s rabbi, Barry Silver, observed that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the law at an evangelical church. Concerned that when the line between religion and government begins to blur those who suffer most are the minority religions.

“Every time that wall starts to crack, bad things start to happen,” Rabbi Silver said.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women agrees. “This ruling would be outlawing abortion in cases when our religion would permit us, and it is basing its concepts of when life begins on someone else’s philosophy or theology.”

The lawsuit filed by Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor poses some weighty questions: What happens when religious freedom for one faith violates that of another’s? And to what degree may the state be the final authority on morality?

A recent Pew Research survey found that 85% of Jews favor abortion in most or all cases, or more than any other religion surveyed. But only 2.4% of American adults identify as Jews. These percentages lead to a third question: Does majority rule also apply to whatever is the religious majority?

In signing the Florida bill into law, Governor DeSantis has opened the floor to a problem that will need a truly Solomonic resolution.