Where Things Stand: Florida Synagogue Sues To Challenge 15-Week Abortion Ban As Violation Of Jewish Law

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MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 17: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the University of Miami Health System Don Soffer Clinical Research Center on May 17, 2022 in Miami, Florida. The governor held th... MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 17: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the University of Miami Health System Don Soffer Clinical Research Center on May 17, 2022 in Miami, Florida. The governor held the press conference to announce that the state of Florida would be providing $100 million for Florida's cancer research centers, after he signs the state budget into law. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) MORE LESS

Congregants from a synagogue in South Florida are suing to block the state’s 15-week abortion ban from going into effect on July 1, arguing the law violates their religious freedom as adherents of Jewish law.

Abortion clinics in the same county as the synagogue also sued earlier this month, according to the Miami Herald, arguing the ban, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in April, violates constitutional rights. Both lawsuits argue that the law violates a privacy right in Florida’s state constitution.

But the latest suit, brought by Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, makes a novel argument about the harms of the ban, suggesting the new restriction violates Jewish people’s religious freedom.

“For Jews, all life is precious and thus the decision to bring new life into the world is not taken lightly or determined by state fiat,” the lawsuit reads, according to the Miami Herald. “In Jewish law, abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman, or for many other reasons not permitted under the act [the 15-week ban]. As such, the act prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and thus violates their privacy rights and religious freedom.”

While not as restrictive as other outright bans proposed and passed in some red states ahead of the impending SCOTUS ruling that will almost certainly overturn Roe, Florida’s law targets abortion providers and physicians who perform the procedure after 15 weeks. It also provides no exceptions for rape, incest or human trafficking.

The lawsuit filed by the synagogue names DeSantis and other state officials as defendants and argues that the ban “threatens the Jewish people by imposing the laws of other religions upon Jews.”

If you, like me, did not know about the Jewish faith’s views on abortion before today, this piece in The Atlantic by Danya Ruttenberg is incredibly illuminating. Jewish scholars have found evidence for how to approach abortion through interpretation of a story in Exodus that deals with the legal repercussions for someone who might harm a pregnant person during a fight. If the pregnant person miscarries, the person who harmed the pregnant person must pay a fine. If the pregnant person dies, the action is equivalent to manslaughter. “The meaning is clear,” Ruttenberg wrote. “The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.”

Ruttenberg also cites two other sacred Jewish texts that discuss ideas about the consciousness of a person versus a fetus. Both feed into Jewish people’s support for abortion.

This idea is underscored in the Talmud, a collection of statements from ancient rabbis. One declares that, for the first 40 days of pregnancy, a fetus is “merely water”—essentially, it has no legal status at all. From the end of that 40-day period until the end of the pregnancy, it’s regarded as part of the pregnant person’s body—“as its mother’s thigh,” the Talmud says. Here, again, the fetus is secondary to the adult human carrying it.

This becomes most clear when a pregnancy or labor endangers the pregnant person. According to a roughly 2,000-year-old source called the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), abortion is explicitly called for to save their life. The life of the baby comes into consideration only once the head has emerged. But beyond life-or-death situations, Jewish law permits abortion in situations where carrying the fetus to term would cause “woe”—and that includes risks to mental health or to kavod habriot (dignity).

“Abortion access, then, is a matter of religious freedom,” she concludes, highlighting the basis of the L’Dor Va-Dor’s argument.

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