In many ways Ben Shapiro’s speech on Monday night was not surprising. It was not surprising that in a speech covering an array of controversial political topics, he chose to tackle the hot-button issue of abortion. It was not surprising that as a proud conservative, Shapiro identifies himself as pro-life. It was also not surprising that he devoted some time to convincing the student body in attendance that they too should be against the practice of abortion in this country. What was surprising though, was what Shapiro chose to say when advocating his position on this issue.
“Torah Judaism does not support abortion,” Shapiro stated, beginning the discussion on the topic with a dubious claim. While it is certainly true that Torah Judaism acknowledges the sanctity of life and therefore does not permit aborting a pregnancy for any given reason, there are circumstances where abortion is allowed. I am not a rabbi or halakhic authority equipped to delve into the complexities involved with this halakha, but I am knowledgeable enough to know that this issue in Torah Judaism is certainly not as black and white as Shapiro claimed.
Shapiro’s overarching assertion was based on a quotation from Rav Soloveitchik, made just two years after Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, making abortion legal in the United States. “If you kill a fetus, a time will come when even infants will be killed,” Shapiro quoted the Rav as saying. “The mother will get frightened after the baby will be born and the doctor will say that her life depends upon the murder of the baby.”
I cannot overemphasize the fact that I am not trying to contradict the Rav as I am nowhere near learned enough to do so, but it is worth noting that there are serious problems with basing one’s halakhic opposition of abortion on this statement alone. It is in the very nature of the halakhic process to have many conflicting opinions about any given topic—abortion included. Providing one quotation, albeit from a leader as great as the Rav, is not representative of the multiplicity of opinions within the halakhic system. Therefore, the Rav’s statement alone is an insufficient base to support Shapiro’s enormous claim that “Torah Judaism does not support abortion.”
Obviously, abortion is not allowed in every circumstance but there are cases where halakhic authorities rule that abortion is permitted. For example, in a case where the mother’s life is in danger, there is a consensus that abortion is allowed up until birth (although the exact moment of birth is open to halakhic debate). Furthermore, there are rabbis who allow abortions in specific cases even where the life of the mother is not in danger. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, commonly known as the Tzitz Eliezer, allowed a woman to have an abortion up until the seventh month in a case where the fetus has Tay-Sachs. While this may be a radical halakhic decision, most rabbis agree that abortion is a sensitive and complicated issue that requires each case to be decided individually. Again, I am not attempting to make any halakhic declaration, but rather I am pointing out that the issue of abortion in halakha is complicated and multifaceted.
During the ‘Q&A’ session of the event, one Stern student pointed out how mistaken Shapiro was by making his blanket statement about abortion and Torah Judaism, pointing out that there are prominent rabbis who do permit abortions in certain situations. Shapiro responded by making a stunning flip and saying, “Right there is a lot of machloket [disagreement] about when it’s allowed, but the idea that abortion is blanket allowed is for sure assur [prohibited].”
The claim that “Torah Judaism does not support abortion” is completely different than the claim that Torah Judaism does not support abortion in all cases. While Shapiro may have meant the latter from the beginning, his initial statement wrongfully leads people to believe that there are no cases in which abortion is permitted. Only after being called out on the falsehood of that statement by a student, did Shapiro amend his claim to be that there are some cases where abortion is not allowed according to halakha—which is frankly self-evident to any Torah observant Jew familiar with the halakhic process.
Moving away from his faulty halakhic argument against abortion, Shapiro instead resorted to attacking the Democratic Party for their pro-choice position. “The Democratic Party position…is that abortion should be legal under any circumstances up to the point of birth,” Shapiro stated. But in fact, this is a gross misrepresentation of the Democratic Party’s view on abortion.
The 2016 Democratic Party Platform, while not bringing many specifics, reaffirms the party’s stance as pro-choice. “Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice,” the text of the party platform states. “We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.” Although it is clear in the platform that the Democratic Party believes that a woman has a right to an abortion, nowhere in the 55-page document is there support of abortions “under any circumstances up to the point of birth,” as Shapiro boldly claimed.
What Shapiro may be referring to is the fact that the Democratic Party has historically rejected bans on late-term abortion and specifically intact dilation and extraction, more commonly known as partial-birth abortion. President Bill Clinton vetoed two bills in 1995 and 1997 that would have banned the practice and when the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 was passed under President George W. Bush, many Democrats opposed it, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton. However, the reason that Democrats did not support this ban is not because they want a woman to have an abortion “under any circumstances up to the point of birth” as Shapiro would like you to believe.
President Clinton vetoed those bills and Hillary Clinton voted against the similar legislation in 2003 because there were no exceptions made on the ban of partial-birth abortions for the health of the mother. Under Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is legal and must be accessible in all 50 states. However, during the third trimester, when a fetus is viable, states are allowed to limit a woman’s access to abortion so long as there are exceptions in place for cases where the mother’s health or life is at risk. Since these bills banning partial-birth abortions did not provide exceptions for the health of the mother, like the Supreme Court ruled that it must in Roe v. Wade, many Democrats opposed the legislation. Hillary Clinton, among other Democrats, has repeatedly stated on the record that she would support a ban on all late-term abortion, as long as there are exceptions made for the life and health of the mother.
“I have said many times that I can support a ban on late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, so long as the health and life of the mother is protected,” Hillary Clinton said during a New York Senate debate in 2000. “I’ve met women who faced this heart-wrenching decision toward the end of a pregnancy. Of course it’s a horrible procedure. No one would argue with that. But if your life is at stake, if your health is at stake, if the potential for having any more children is at stake, this must be a woman’s choice.”
Just this year, Hillary Clinton repeated the same policy position during the third presidential debate. “I have met with women who, toward the end of their pregnancy, get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term, or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy,” she explained. “I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions. So you can regulate, if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account.”
Forget the fact that late-term abortions are incredibly rare, accounting for only 1.2% of all abortions. Forget that forty-three out of fifty states already have laws prohibiting abortions either after viability of the fetus or after twenty to twenty-eight weeks. Shapiro’s claim that the Democratic Party supports abortion “under any circumstances up to the point of birth” is categorically false.
Ultimately, I do not care that Shapiro is pro-life. I can respect his opinion when he presents legitimate and factual reasons to support his position. Another student at the event asked him, “Do you believe that we should overturn Roe v. Wade now that we have a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a future Republican President?” He responded emphatically and affirmatively, “Of course I think that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Roe v. Wade is a garbage position.” Despite my obvious disagreements in this area and with his statement, I can respect his pro-life convictions. What I cannot respect and refuse to tolerate are the lies that he told in the guise of educating the audience on this issue.
For someone who brands himself as a defender of truth, dedicated to presenting the unadulterated facts, it is shocking that his explanation on abortion was so riddled with inaccuracies. This can only lead me to conclude one of two things: either Shapiro was intentionally lying and manipulating the facts in an effort to advance his point on abortion, which is both irresponsible and reprehensible. Or, he did not lie intentionally, but simply does not know the facts, in which case he loses all credibility as a knowledgeable pundit deserving of our attention.
Regardless, I sincerely hope that those who heard him speak, irrespective of their political views, do not form their opinions on abortion based on what Ben Shapiro had to say. Do the extra research, take the time to fact-check, and then make an informed decision.