In recent weeks, presidential candidate Marco Rubio has defended his opposition to abortion in all cases, even to save the life of the mother, by claiming a scientific consensus that life begins at conception. As such, the argument goes, a law protecting the mother’s life over that of her fetus would be criminal.
He may not know, though, that his position could destroy the lives of some Orthodox Jews like me. Because in our faith tradition, abortion to save the life of the mother is not “permitted.” It is mandatory.
Jewish law considers a fetus threatening the mother’s life to be a “rodef” (a pursuer) – similar to a knife-wielding man about to murder someone. Jewish law requires killing a rodef to protect the life of an innocent person.
Well-respected Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has explained the Jewish approach this way: “What determines the ‘right of life’ for the fetus is its potential danger. If it ‘pursues’ the mother, threatening her life, then the fetus must be destroyed.”
Senator Rubio identifies as Catholic, so unsurprisingly he wants American law to prohibit something his religion forbids. But in this case, the thing his religion forbids, my religion requires.
The observant women I know turn to their rabbis when faced with difficult decisions related to Jewish law. The rabbis I know will readily give binding medical rulings supported by our sources. And the Jewish doctors I know would not hesitate to perform a procedure a rabbi says is obligatory. For Jews in those three categories, a secular law barring abortion to save the mother’s life would not change that process whatsoever.
Yet under the Rubio policy, those women, those doctors, and – who knows? – perhaps even those rabbis would face criminal sanctions for following Jewish law. Given that Rubio sees no difference between fetal life and that of born humans, they might even be charged with murder and conspiracy.
To be clear: I’m not making a constitutional argument that such abortion restrictions would impede the free exercise of the Jewish religion under the First Amendment. Instead, I’m making a political point: that Rubio is looking for the votes of people he would punish for following the dictates of their faith.
I don’t sympathize with the leftist idea that because religions disagree, laws should always reflect the lowest common moral denominator. But if Rubio wants my vote, he must provide specific justifications why his religious beliefs on this matter should not only prevail, but lead to the prosecution (persecution?) of people with my religious beliefs.
(Incidentally, I’m asking the question of Rubio because I think he’d be a good president. I’m not as concerned about candidates with the same stance like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal who don’t impress me.)
Now, many liberal Jews discussing American politics have incorrectly proclaimed that “Judaism is pro-choice” because our texts and precedents allow abortion in certain circumstances beyond saving the mother’s life – for example to protect her from grievous emotional harm, and in some opinions when the child has a fatal diagnosis portending a short and painful life. But Jewish law does not require abortion in those other cases; it just allows it. And Jews can survive, however unhappily, in a country that forbids something our religion allows. Under the principle of dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the country is the law), we are actually bound to follow secular laws that do not infringe on our religious ones.
But that rule does not apply to mandatory termination of life-threatening pregnancies under Jewish law. If the Rubio policy prevails, some traditional Jews will have excruciating decisions to make – like whether they want to pursue secret and potentially unsafe medical procedures; leave the country; or face jail time for doing something we believe God demands.
If Rubio wants my support, he’ll need to explain why he’s OK with that.
David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller. Follow David Benkof on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or Email him at [email protected].