Sisterhood Blog

Haredi Perspectives on Birth Control, Abortion

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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News of the Obama administration’s anticipated adoption of a health panel’s recommendation that birth control be considered preventive care and therefore paid for by insurance companies is being widely welcomed by those concerned with women’s health.

It came to mind when I read this advice seeker on the fascinating website Unpious.com. A Haredi woman in her 20s (and already a mother of five) writes, plaintively, of her terror that she might be pregnant with a sixth child. She writes that she and her husband, though Hasidic, are comfortable using birth control whether or not they have the rabbinic permission known as a heter.

While the rest of the world, Jewish and otherwise, looks at Hasidic communities where six, eight or 10 kids are the typical progeny in each family and assumes that birth control is verboten, it is not.

In fact, particularly once a couple has had a boy and a girl, fulfilling the commandment Pru U’rvu (to be fruitful and multiply), some forms of birth control are permitted by rabbis who will take concerns about the woman’s or couple’s health and well-being into account when rendering a decision. Barrier methods are usually not permitted but hormonal forms of birth control, like the pill, more often are. Those forms, unfortunately, are available only to women, and have side effects and risks. Nonetheless, even in the most Haredi communities, it is legitimate, under some circumstances, to use birth control.

“The Unpious Posek,” or arbiter of religious law, as the anonymous advice columnist is dubbed, advises the terrified young mother to consider abortion as well as having the baby, if she is already pregnant. The “posek” writes:

Maybe you think that saving the life of a two-week-old embryo is noble. But keep in mind the lives of your other children, be they toddlers or teenagers, who need their mother. If you cannot handle another baby and you have it anyway, your other children will suffer. A Chasidic rebbe once said that a woman’s strength multiplies and her heart’s capacity for love doubles with the birth of each additional child. Wouldn’t that be nice? But I’m afraid it’s not true; mothers, too, have limits.

Rarely does a woman seek an abortion when she is only two weeks pregnant. Women are generally at least four weeks along, and have already missed a period, before even realizing they are pregnant.

And abortion is a complicated topic in Torah. There is a wide range of interpretations of classical texts. Some rabbinic authorities permit abortion under very limited conditions, like if the mother’s life is at imminent risk, while others have a more liberal perspective, allowing that abortion is permitted for many reasons if the woman is not more than about six weeks pregnant because, as The Unpious Posek cites, “Jewish law does not consider a fertilized embryo to be a viable fetus until it’s forty days old.”

I am delving more deeply into the relevant texts in an interesting class at Drisha on “Ethical Questions at the Beginning of Life,” taught by Rabbi Daniel Reifman.

For many of us, even those who are not Hasidic, it is not easy to find the right balance between our religious values, which may include the desire to have as many children as possible, and our own sense of self, sanity and non-procreative potential. For some it means having two, one or no children. For others it means having 10.

I personally feel that it is a positive Jewish commitment to have as many children as we are able to while being responsible physically, emotionally and financially. I have long admired the mothers who can gracefully raise six, eight or 10 children, and do so while living in homes so modest that they are practically spartan. That’s not me, though. There are days when I feel totally overwhelmed by the demands of my three wonderful children.

Each of us has to find her own balance. I hope that the “Terrified Mother” who wrote to The Unpious Posek has found hers.


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