When Does Life Begin?

Many of us watched with some interest the first debate of the Republican primary last
night with a reaction that might be best described as shock and awe. The ostensible front runner,
Donald Trump, when asked about his derisive comments about women and minorities, first made
a pop culture referenced joke about Rosie O’Donnell, then offered an offensive slight to the
moderator of the debate, and then, to add injury to insult, offered no explanation for his
comments nor his attitude other than “I am who I am, and I said what I said.”

This debate was not a game changer; there were no awful gaffs or apologetics. But the
tone set by this debate offers scary foreshadowing of things to come. And for those of us who
care about civil discourse, especially as Jews, where civil discourse is literally written in to our
way of being, there seems to be an inevitable slide towards oversimplification, masquerading as
brevity. Some conversations need to be exactly that, conversations. And if we do not always see
eye to eye, that is a result of the blessing of our diversity to be celebrated and explored, not
vilified and used as a four second sound bite.

We have seen this slide catering towards our ever shrinking attention spans for many a
Presidential electoral season, and certainly neither party owns exclusive rights to slander,
misleading statements, or celebrity. But there are a few issues, in this particular election, which
matter, or should matter, to us as a liberal Jewish voice in America. The issue that stood out to
me last night, on the front page of every major paper for the past several weeks, is the issue of
women’s health – who has the right to legislate it, provide it, and even to define it. And to see a
stage full of conservative men discuss it, not to mention at least one liberal rabbi comment on it,
without the input of a woman’s perspective is downright chilling.

But of course we are used to this as well. Mike Huckabee made a definitive statement
last night about incontrovertible proof that life begins at conception. He said, “A lot of people
are talking about defunding Planned Parenthood, as if that’s a huge game changer. I think [he
said] it’s time to do something more bold. I think the next President ought to invoke the Fifth
and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside
the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.” He followed this with a vague
reference to DNA scheduling which he argued provides clear scientific evidence.

There are many reasons why this problematic statement cannot be allowed to stand
unchallenged. First and foremost, Planned Parenthood must not be defunded. This vital and
compassionate organization provides women’s and men’s health services in communities that
simply would not provide those services (to those populations) otherwise. In fact, last year in
Indiana, the crisis of HIV transmission among drug users in Scott County in the Southeastern
corner of the state could have and would have been mediated by Planned Parenthood, except that
the closest clinics had been defunded already. Our Planned Parenthood is not involved in any
way with selling fetal material for research, although the benefits of that research are
immeasurable. Our Planned Parenthood already does not, is not allowed to use federal funds for
abortions, instead, it uses desperately needed funds for pap tests to identify potential cancers, for
regular exams, STD testing and treatment, and contraception. Our 25 locations in Indiana and
Kentucky served nearly 67,000 patients in 2014.

My point is simple. Those facts matter. And despite yours or my personal opinion about
the right of a woman to end an unwanted pregnancy, there must be a recognition that the science
is anything but clear, and that all sides have value and an important place in the conversation. I
understand that these nuanced positions do not win elections, but we will define ourselves as a
society not by the law itself, but rather by the process enshrined in that law.

Jewish text, our heritage, enshrines the conversation about the beginning of life in a way
that absolutely preserves the integrity of personal choice, and our moral, ethical stature. Science,
as it turns out, actually supports this same nuanced position, and does not, as Huckabee suggests,
present incontrovertible proof that life begins as conception. There is agreement that once a
baby is born, it is a life, although even then, Jews offer a caveat. According to Jewish law, a
baby does not have the same rights as an adult until they are thirty days old, to ensure his or her
strength and viability. There is also agreement that before conception, an unfertilized egg is not
a life. But what happens in between, during those nine, really ten productive months, is simply
not clear.

The question, according to the ancient rabbis, is less about when some technical switch
is turned on, and more about when a baby becomes more than just a part of his or her mother;
when a baby has its own, individual soul. Reb Nachman of Breslav would wonder, when is this
child’s guardian angel dispatched? If we were to argue that the spark of life is exchanged during
conception, the famous “ping” that Robin Williams used to joke about, I could not and would not
tell you that you are wrong. And if you were to explain to me that the breaking of the placental
barrier was accompanied, during the pangs of childbirth, with the touching of an angel’s finger to
the lips of the child to instill a soul within, I also could not and would not disagree.

A story is told in the Talmud of Cleopatra the Queen of Alexandria that when her
handmaids were sentenced to death by royal decree they were subjected to a test and it was
found that an embryo is fully formed, and therefore considered a life, on the forty first day.
Rabbi Ishmael replied, I can also bring you proof from the Torah, in that a woman mourns the
loss of a miscarriage when it occurs after the fortieth day, therefore a baby must be fully formed
on the forty first day. (BT Niddah 30b)

Another view suggests that once a baby might survive outside of the mother, he or she
ceases to be a part of their mother, and begins to thrive as a person, a nefesh, with a soul of their
own. Yet another suggests that a baby does not receive a soul until he or she says “Amen” for
the first time, another offers the first breath as the moment of ensoulment.

The science of DNA sequencing helps us understand the development of eyelashes and
toenails, both of which are integral parts of an emerging human being. But DNA studies will
never help us understand the nature of the soul. No amount of data will convince those with
whom we disagree that they or we are wrong. With this largest of big questions we come face to
face with our limitations, and with the mystery at the heart of existence. And when we pretend
to know one way or the other – we dilute the grandeur, confine the infinite, and stifle our awe.
Of course we must legislate, and laws protecting life of every age and stage are critical. But the
only response appropriate for a mystery as great as this one is to walk humbly, something that
politicians are programmed not to do.

What do Jews think about when life begins? Ask two Jews and get three opinions. In
general abortion is permitted in early stages by most if not all Jewish authorities: Reform,
Orthodox and everywhere in between, especially if the woman’s health, either physical or mental
health, is threatened. In most cases, we recognize that we are talking about real people in real
situations, and that when we judge all people by their merit, it helps us to be humble when we
make decisions that are this enmeshed in religious and personal conviction.

My honest hope is that if and when, God forbid, a member of a community is faced with
the impossible decision of whether or not to end a pregnancy, they would have the strength not
only of a religious tradition, but of a caring and compassionate religious advisor, a Priest, a
Minister, or a Rabbi, with whom to discuss options, outcomes, and a long, long future of living
with that decision. Our Torah does not offer platitudes of statements from on high, rather it
engages us in the decision-making process of our lives, and asks us to hear the wisdom of a
hundred generations, and to add our own wisdom as well.

And as we choose the next leadership for this great country, founded on the principles of
debate and public discourse, of tolerance and individual liberty and freedom, may our choices
reflect those same values. May we not chase the illusive and fleeting sound bites of the rich and
famous, and instead hear the voices of those most interested in engaging with big questions, and
allowing our society to celebrate differences, to honor and respect women, not to mention Jewish
lives, black lives, life in every age and stage, as a reflection of God’s presence in our world.

Rosie’s response to Trump, by the way, is worthy of mention. When we consider the effect these
debates have on our collective psyche and the future of civil discourse in our society, Rosie
O’Donnell took the high road, and responded, “try explaining that 2 your kids.” Thank you
Rosie, for reminding us of who is watching us, watch the debate.