A Saskatchewan rabbi criticizes a Catholic bishop who is protesting Morgentaler’s Order of Canada medal. Here is the full text of the news article:
Saskatoon’s Roman Catholic bishop is calling on followers to protest the awarding of the Order of Canada to abortion-rights crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler earlier this month. However, Bishop Albert LeGatt’s initiative is being criticized by a rabbi who says Dr. Morgentaler has done more for women’s rights than the Catholic Church. Saskatoon Rabbi emeritus Roger Pavey of the liberal congregation Agudas Israel said Bishop LeGatt was misguided, adding that even Orthodox Judaism considered abortion acceptable in some cases.
First, it is facile and offensive to suggest that Morgentaler has done more for women’s rights than the Catholic Church. It reflects naked hostility to Catholicism that is unbecoming in a senior clergyman, profound bias, or ignorance of recent history, or most likely some blend of the three. I’ll simply point out that given what we know about abortion and depression, breast cancer, and problems with subsequent pregnancies, Morgentaler has caused direct harm to many women quite apart from the actual damage women sustain when choosing to terminate a pregnancy. The Catholic Church, like all massive and long-lived institutions, is imperfect, but in recognizing the sanctity of motherhood and encouraging women and men to form lifelong marriages, among others, it has certainly added to the net happiness of women in the world.
Next point: Rabbi Pavey points out that “even Orthodox Judaism” permits abortion in some circumstances. This is absolutely true. Rabbi Pavey assuredly knows, though, that those circumstances are very narrow, and in fact bear no resemblance to the circumstances in which Morgentaler has performed abortions. Jewish law permits (and in some cases requires) abortion if continuing a pregnancy would kill the mother. Note, please, that this is a vanishingly rare situation in 21st century Canada. It is also noteworthy that there is no “mental health” exemption, which has been used to such mischief in some jurisdictions; since depression during and after pregnancy are largely treatable, the vast majority of Jewish legal authorities do not consider mental distress at an unwanted pregnancy to be a reason to abort.
There are also abundant sources indicating that, as a developing life, a fetus has great value and sanctity – but not quite as much as an existing life, so that when there is a mortal conflict between the life of the fetus and the life of the mother, we must choose the mother. By the time either the head or the majority of the body has emerged from the womb, though, the baby has equal status as the mother, and it is forbidden to choose between them – no partial birth abortions permitted, in other words. Also significant is that the conflict between the life of the fetus and an existing life applies only to the mother, ie the life that would be directly threatened if the pregnancy continued; destroying a fetus to save a third life, or many other lives, is also forbidden.
Here we get to the real intellectual dishonesty of Rabbi Pavey’s words. Pavey is the Rabbi Emeritus of a Conservative congregation in Saskatoon. Conservative Judaism, like Orthodox Judaism, believes in the binding and eternal nature of the covenant between God and the Jews. Unlike Orthodox Judaism, which believes (to reduce a complicated issue to one phrase) that Jewish law is fixed, and can be applied to new situations but must not be adapted, Conservative Judaism believes that the component of the law that is subject to human interpretation can and must evolve as the understanding, wisdom and knowledge of humans evolve. Nonetheless, Conservative Judaism recognizes that not all abortions are permitted by Jewish law. The official position of Conservative Judaism on the politics of abortion is to oppose any law that might prevent abortions in the (extremely narrow set of) circumstances in which it is permitted by Jewish law.
Abortion to save the life of the mother has been permitted in Canada throughout Morgentaler’s career. The slightly more lax circumstances in which Conservative Jewish law finds abortion acceptable (abortion to prevent serious injury to the mother, or severe mental anguish) have also been accommodated in practice in Canada throughout Morgentaler’s career. Abortions that are permitted within Jewish law, in other words, already were permitted within Canadian law, and this has nothing to do with Morgentaler. On the contrary, the very essence of Morgentaler was to shatter this status quo in favour of abortion at any time, for any woman, for any reason, and ideally at the taxpayer’s expense. And he was most successful.
To discard a human life in a cavalier manner is profoundly contrary to the Jewish tradition, law and ethos. To oppose laws that restrict abortion on the grounds that such laws might infringe upon the (incredibly rare) situations in which Jewish law permits abortion – the official position of Conservative Judaism – strikes me as extreme, unnuanced, but logically coherent. To celebrate a man who devoted his life to making life disposable – the most sacred earthly thing in Judaism, such that we are permitted to break almost any other law in order to save a life – is reprehensible, and deeply unJewish.
Rabbi Pavey undoubtedly knows the position of his own movement on abortion. He almost certainly knows that Orthodox Judaism (and until this century all of Judaism) sees abortion as a last resort, a tragic measure to be taken only to save the life of the mother. I don’t know what he is trying to gain by this statement, but he has managed to fit contempt for women, Jewish law and tradition, both Orthodox and Conservative, and Catholicism, all into a couple of sentences. There are better ways he could be using his time – teaching Jews and non-Jews alike that our religion holds all life to be sacred, even a developing life in the womb. How about that?