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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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‘Pikuach Nefesh’: Saving lives and the case for access to abortion as health care

Rabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation and is the founder of the Ashrei Foundation, which works to heal and repair Missouri through justice and equity.

Laws that ban and restrict access to abortion do not stop abortions; they only serve to make them more dangerous and life threatening. 

Women die when those who oppose access to safe, legal and affordable abortion set up bans and barriers that confuse and cause fear for providers and organizations that were able to save countless lives when the law protected abortion as a personal choice.

Abortion bans and barriers put lives in the hands of politicians instead of physicians. For generations, the Jewish community has shown compassion for the physical, emotional and spiritual health of a person whose life is threatened by a pregnancy. Countless texts and rabbinical commentaries throughout the ages have supported the right of a pregnant person to know what choice is right for them.

As a child, I remember my mother helping those who did not have the means for safe abortions when they were illegal before the days of Roe vs. Wade. Our rabbi was part of an underground movement that saved lives by making sure that not only those with privilege had access and the support to make the difficult choice of terminating a pregnancy. The suggestion that anyone makes this choice lightly is misleading and cruel. 

As a rabbi who has guided many through this challenging choice, I have been grateful to have much of Jewish tradition on my side. Jewish tradition supports those whose lives are threatened by a pregnancy to choose their own life for their sake and often for the sake of their families and other children. 

I have been with mothers who have had to make the agonizing choice to terminate a wanted pregnancy to survive and be able to have other children. Judaism supports putting the mother’s life first if there must be a choice. I’m grateful that we can comfort those who have been raped or are the victims of incest as they weigh their options.  

Anyone who has been on this front line knows that these are difficult and often necessary choices to save lives, relieve suffering and terminate fetuses that are incompatible with life. It is hard to believe that our state continues to choose policy over people and continues to put the most vulnerable at risk.

In 1974, Simone Veil, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and the director of the Ministry of Health of France, was successful in making a case for abortion. She proved that laws that restricted abortion only served to punish the poor and that these laws only made a mockery of legal systems because they did nothing to stop abortions from happening. 

As a Holocaust survivor who had been stripped of every dignity, she worked to protect the dignity and privacy of other women. She was among those survivors who saw the absolute banality of evil and still chose life and meaning.  

As a Jewish woman, she drew upon many principles that value the saving of lives. As a feminist, she fought for the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses to make their own decisions. And as a human being, she showed empathy for those less fortunate. 

As a conservative, she knew just how to talk to a room full of men and knew that they were more concerned with social structures and birth rates than with women’s lives. Simone Veil succeeded in overturning the abortion bans in France and paved the way for the compassionate and legal care that exists there today. 

I’m proud that Jewish tradition allows for abortion when it is the right personal choice for a pregnant person, whatever the reason. I am part of a lawsuit that is suing Missouri for imposing other religious traditions’ beliefs upon all.

I am in support of the Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s ballot initiative that will allow the people of Missouri to vote on restoring the legalization of abortion, protecting access to birth control and controlling their own reproductive health care choices.  

Jewish tradition invites healthy and thoughtful debate rooted in our texts and teachings and, in many cases, we are able to stand together even when we disagree.  Adding women’s voices to our wisdom in areas where we have direct experience continues to help us grow in compassion as we serve the greater good and God. 

Access to safe, affordable and legal abortions helps to preserve one of our highest principles: Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of the lives and souls seeking to choose life. 

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