Recent SCOTUS abortion ruling clashes with Judaism, rabbi says

By Olivia Cohen, Managing Editor

Kayla Macedo

Rabbi Sarah Mulhern stood in front of her stovetop on an early Friday evening on the last week of June. While cooking for Shabbat dinner for Hillel students who would be coming over in a few hours, Mulhern felt her phone buzz.

Looking at the text on her phone, Mulhern saw that her friend, who is also a rabbi, asked if she wanted to go on CNN in an hour and discuss Judaism and abortion rights.

Confused, Mulhern asked what they would be specifically talking about, “Oh, you didn’t hear,” Mulhern’s phone read.

All of the sudden, Mulhern’s stomach dropped.

Roe v. Wade was officially overturned on June 24, leaving abortion access and rights back to the states, loosing its status under previous Supreme Court rulings.

“It was kind of an abrupt way to find out,” Mulhern said. “I’ve been anticipating this decision for four years and certainly expecting it to come in coming weeks, but I still wasn’t expecting it right then, in that moment. … Even though I’ve known that this is coming for years, it still felt like a punch in the gut.”

Mulhern, a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said there are times when abortion is forbidden, permitted and required.

“As a Jew, one of the things that makes the kinds of abortion bans that we are seeing come into place all around the country right now challenging is that it could easily happen that there could be a circumstance in which my religion would require me to have an abortion and my state would tell me that I was not allowed to,” Mulhern said.

Mulhern is the rabbi for Hillel’s “Base” in Lincoln Park, which she and her husband have been running out of their home since August 2021. Base is a Jewish community open to both college and post-college individuals in their 20s and 30s.

Mulhern said some of the major components of Base are welcoming people into their home for Friday night Shabbat meals and Jewish holiday celebrations, gathering to talk about various issues from a Jewish perspective and for public service projects in the Chicago community.

Mulhern said part of her role at Hillel is offering pastoral care to students and meeting with them one-on-one.

In traditional Jewish thinking, life starts at birth, at the moment where a baby crowns and not before, Mulhern said, adding that a fetus is thought of as an important “potential life.”

“What emerges from that is that a fetus is not a life if you are making a judgement call between the life of the mother and the life of the fetus … The life of the mother always goes first,” Mulhern said. “All through the pregnancy, up until the actual labor time period, if you are having to make a medical decision that is choosing between prioritizing the life of the fetus or the life of the mother, Jewish law actually requires you to prioritize the life of the mother.”

Mulhern said the spectrum of abortion’s attainability under Jewish law varies, but if there is any evidence the mother might die if the pregnancy continues, the abortion would “probably” be required. Mulhern added if the mother’s life does not appear to be in danger but her or the fetus’ health may be compromised, or her mental health or economics may be negatively impacted, abortion could be permitted.

Mulhern said she has also helped people seek out abortion services and talk it through in terms of Jewish law during her time as a rabbi.

Mulhern said if someone has no particular reason to have an abortion or does not feel like carrying their baby, then that would be a situation where Jewish law would not permit the abortion.

“I would say in my experience as a woman and as a pastoral counselor and as a rabbi, most people actually don’t [get an abortion] without a serious reason to get an abortion,” Mulhern said. “Usually if a person is considering an abortion, they understand the seriousness of [an abortion].”

Mulhern said the American-Jewish community is overwhelmingly pro-choice, which is supported by polling by the Pew Research Center. According to the polling, approximately 83% of Jewish Americans believe abortion should be legal in “all/most cases.”

Lily Rubin is a junior musical theatre major and will be transferring from Columbia to Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, in the fall. Rubin heard that Roe was overturned from the New York Times notifications they receive.

Rubin said their stomach dropped when reading the news and they did not expect the vote was happening that day, catching them off-guard.

Rubin said one of the first people they called after hearing the news was an elderly woman they worked with as an assistant teacher in the Sunday School at their synagogue.

Rubin said their co-worker protested for Roe v. Wade “way back when” and has been apart of every major protest since the protests of the Vietnam war.

Rubin said they do not consider themselves observant of Judaism, but they are very open about their Judaism and they even have a Star of David tattooed on the back of their shoulder, as it is a core part of their identity.

“You are required in Judaism to get an abortion if your life is in danger or if your health is in danger,” Rubin said. “That encompasses mental health, psychological health … you are required to get an abortion … Now there is a possibility that a Jewish person who lives in a state where abortion is not protected, will not be able to exercise their right to express their religion.”

Rubin said they will continue to attend abortion ban protests throughout the summer.

Zoë Kuehn, a junior comedy major, said she was not as surprised to hear the news, but it still felt “surreal.” 

Kuehn said she grew up going to Orthodox Jewish preschool and was taught to be open-minded. She said the Hasidic community where she grew up was always very accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.

Now, Kuehn said she is not as religious as some, but feels very connected to Judaism in the sense that it is an ethno-religion. Kuehn said she agrees with those who think the ban on abortion allowed by the Supreme Court is a violation of religious rights under the First Amendment.

“Not everyone is Christian and not every Christian even agrees with [a ban on abortion,]” Kuehn said. “It is definitely another example of Christian privilege … where all the other religions are kind of put in a worse position, almost secondary or not important.”

Kuehn said one of the bigger issues at play is the relationship between the Catholic Church and the states.

“I think we don’t have a separation of church and state and I think most people who disagree with abortion are Christian … but not all of us are,” Kuehn said. “You can disagree with something and not do it for yourself, but other people can make their own decisions.”