What is the Significance of Abortion and Euthanasia in the Eyes of Torah?

The Universal Principle of Respect for Life

The Universal Principle of Respect for Life (from Torah for Humanity) includes the precepts related to abortion and euthanasia.

A human being is forbidden to commit murder or bloodshed, and would be liable for this as a capital sin,[1] as God commanded Noah,[2] “But your blood of your souls I will demand; of every beast I will demand it; but of man (adam), of man for his brother, I will demand the soul of man (adam). Whoever sheds the blood of man (adam), by man (adam) his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man (adam).”

In most contexts of the traditional simple meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures, this term refers generically to any human being, male or female, as we see from Genesis 1:27, “And God created man (adam)…; male and female He created them.” Thus adam in this context means a person.

The Sages explained:

(a) “… your blood of your souls I will demand” refers to one who commits suicide.

(b) “… of every beast will I demand it” refers to one who places another person before an injurious animal so it will kill him.

(c) “… of man for his brother” refers to one who sends another to kill.

For all these three cases, the verse states, “I [God] will demand,” which refers to punishment by God.[3]

(d) “Whoever sheds the blood of man” refers to one who kills actively and deliberately.[4]

(e) “Whoever sheds the blood of adam within adam” refers to one who kills a human fetus, which is “a person within a person.”[5]

(f) “… his blood shall be shed” refers to the judgment of capital punishment that is meted out by a court of law.[6]

The reason for the prohibition of murder is clear and simple: it is necessary since God desires the world that He created to be inhabited and settled, and not destroyed and desolate,[7] as is stated,[8] “He did not create it for emptiness; He fashioned it to be inhabited.” Also, no person should presume that he has mastery over others to be able to take their lives or injure them according to his own will or desires. Rather, a person should recognize that there is a Master and Creator of everything, Who directs the world and judges its inhabitants. A person should respect the life, property and honor of his fellow human beings and not harm them, and know that the authority over human life is in the hands of God alone, and human beings do not have this authority or discretion in their own right.

Rather, humans must follows God’s directives in matters of life and death, as taught by the precepts of God’s Torah.

  1. It is forbidden to murderany human life, whether it be a man or a woman; an adult or a minor; a free person or a slave (including at the hands of the slave’s master); a deaf, handicapped, deformed, aged or physically or mentally ill person; or even an embryo in its mother’s womb.[9] A Gentile who kills any of the above is a murderer and is liable for a capital sin.


  1. One who hits a pregnant woman and kills her embryo, or a doctor who performs an abortion – by which process the embryo cannot possibly live,[10] or a doctor who gives the mother medicine for the purpose of aborting the embryo or killing it in place, or a pregnant woman who took this action herself, are all liable for murder as a capital sin.

However, one who hits a woman in another area of her body, which causes her to weaken and subsequently miscarry, is not liable in court unless he has intention with his action to cause the miscarriage, and the miscarriage was inevitably a result of the blow.

One who hires a doctor to perform an abortion is considered as one who hires a mercenary to kill, and this is punishable by God.

  1. An embryo is not considered to be a human life until 40 days after conception. Prior to this, its substance is considered like mere water. However, during this time, it is still forbidden within the prohibition of murder to cause an abortion, and God will seek justice for the destruction of the embryo.[11] Nevertheless, within 40 days after the egg is fertilized (the moment of conception), a killer of the embryo is not liable to capital punishment from a court of law.
  2. Even if the mother has emotional justification for not wanting the pregnancy (for example, in cases of rape or incest), aborting the fetus is forbidden according to the severity of the prohibition of murder.[12]

If it is known that the child she is carrying will be born with a fatal illness or defect, it is nevertheless forbidden to abort the fetus, and one who does so is a murderer.[13]

It would appear that if it is medically proven that the fetus will be miscarried or not born alive, or that it will be born but will die within 30 days, then one who transgresses and aborts such a fetus is not liable for a capital sin.

  1. A pregnant woman whose own life is at risk because of her pregnancy is permitted to have an abortion.

All of the above concerns abortion; however, use of methods that prevent conception from happening is permissible for Gentiles.

  1. One who kills a born child that could not have lived for 30 days after birth, due to a serious illness or defect, is exempt from liability for a capital sin.[14] If, however, the child could live at least 30 days after birth, even if only through medical intervention, it is considered viable, and one who kills it is liable to capital punishment.


  1. Killing a mortally sick or injured person or a “goses” (the Hebrew term for a dying person who has become moribund and whose death is imminent) is considered murder, and this carries liability for a capital sin.[15] If a victim was close to dying as a result of one person’s act of murder, andanotherperson dealt the victim a final blow (e.g. decapitation), both are liable if they intended to kill[16] – the last perpetrator, since he made the final murderous blow, and the first,[17] since his actions would surely have brought death without the actions of the second. (This is “murder after murder.”)

However, one who hastens the death of a “living carcass”[18] is exempt from a capital sin.[19] (Examples of a “living carcass” are one whose body was split in two, or whose back was ripped from behind “like a fish,” or whose thigh with its cavity was removed, or whose neck and most of the surrounding flesh was broken – before the person dies, i.e., while the heart is still beating.)

  1. It is forbidden to even touch a dying person, even to close his eyes, since doing so might hasten the person’s death, which is forbidden within the prohibition of murder.[20] (It is clear that one would not be liable as a murderer for touching a dying person, especially since it is not certain if these actions cause death; rather, the Sages warned about this as a possible harm to agoses.)

However, one who is trying to revive a goses, or to lessen his suffering, is clearly allowed to touch the stricken person in the course of trying to save or help him, and indeed it is commendable to do so. However, from the moment that a doctor knows that it is impossible to help the goses at all, it is forbidden to touch him.

  1. Mercy killing is forbidden, even if the patient is suffering and wants his life to be terminated. Even if it is clear that the person will not emerge alive from his current sickness, it is still forbidden to kill him, and one who does kill him is a murderer. Nonetheless, one does not have topreventa terminally ill or injured person from dying, and it is permitted to allow him to die if this is the wish of the dying person,[21] provided this is his clear-headed decision and he knows his condition. The prohibition is only against actively killing a person, for example, by removing or turning off a life-support system.

However, if one whose mind is not sound says that he wishes to die, and it is known that he is not making clear-headed decisions, the above situation does not apply. It appears that it is forbidden to let the person die of his own choosing, and it is obligatory to take the medically necessary steps to save his life.

Even if there is no hope for a patient, and the relatives do not wish to prolong his suffering, they do not have any permission to withhold medical treatment. (This does not apply to a patient who was put on a respirator machine, but he has entered clinical death and does not have any heartbeat; in such a case, one may turn off the respirator, since the person is not considered to be alive.)

  1. If a person is nearing death (or still in good health) and he expresses a wish that if he falls into a near-death condition, some parts of his body should be removed for transplant donations before he dies (before his heart has permanently stopped beating), it is forbidden to do so, even though in that condition he would surely die in a short time regardless of what is done. This is obvious, since the operation will or might hasten his death (and it is not done for the purpose of healing).

The Severity of the Sin of Murder

  1. The sin of bloodshed is so severe that if someone kills just one person, it is as if he has destroyed the entire world. Thus does the Torah say about Cain, in reference to his murder of Abel (Gen. 4:10): “The bloods of your brother cries out to Me.” It does not say “the blood of your brother,” but rather “the bloods of your brother” – meaning the victim’s blood and the blood of the offspring he would have had until the end of all generations.

Therefore, God created the first man, Adam, as a lone individual, to teach that if anyone murders even one person,[22] it is as if he has destroyed the entire world, for behold, from one person (Adam) the entire world population was brought forth (including Eve, who was brought forth from Adam). And conversely, if someone saves one person’s life, it is as if he has saved the entire world.

Another reason why God created Adam as a lone individual was to teach the value of peaceful relationships – that a person should not say to another, “My father is greater than your father,” or other types of inflammatory statements. Also, God did so to refute the polytheists who would claim that there are many deities in Heaven (saying that each of these deities created a primordial person).

Mankind produces many coins from a die and they are all similar, but the Holy One blessed be He, the King of all kings, creates every person in the image of Adam and Ĥava (Eve), and yet no two people have the same features, to teach us that every human being is significant in his own right. Therefore, each person should rightfully be permitted to say, “The world was created for my sake”[23] – that is, for the sake of the good deeds and the service to G-d and mankind that He sent me to accomplish in the physical world.

By Dr. Michael Schulman, from Ask Noah International


[1] Rambam, Laws of Kings 9:4.

[2] Genesis 9:5-6.

[3] Rambam, Laws of Murderers 2:3.

[4] Rambam ibid.

[5] Rambam, Laws of Kings 9:4.

[6] Rambam ibid.

[7] Rambam, Laws of Murderers 4:9.

[8] Isaiah 45:18.

[9] Rambam, Laws of Kings 9:4.

[10] Although it may be possible to place the aborted embryo in an incubator and it would survive, if the doctor does not intend to do so and the baby is not put in an incubator, this is considered murder.

[11] It is clear that in this case, as for any murder, the blood of the one murdered and of the would-be descendants are all avenged, as G-d said to Cain (Genesis 4:10): “The voice of your brother’s bloods, they cry out to Me…” Rashi explains this verse as “his blood and the blood of his [would-be] descendants.”

[12] Igrot Moshe Ĥoshen Mishpat states that for a Gentile this is permitted in a dire case.

[13] Igrot Moshe Ĥoshen Mishpat permits abortion for a Jew in the first 40 days if the child will have a permanent illness or defect that will impede normal living; it appears that the same applies for Gentiles and there is allowance for them to do so, but requests for this permission should be judged very carefully because of the severity of the prohibition of murder.

[14] This is the ruling of Rambam, Laws of Murderers 2:6 regarding a Jew, and Minĥat Ĥinuĥ Commandment 34 writes that the same applies to a Gentile. [Nevertheless, it is still forbidden to do so, within the prohibition of murder.] The difference between a nonviable child and a mortally wounded living person (for whose murder one would be liable for a capital sin) is that the mortally wounded person has already gained the distinction of viable living, as opposed to a newborn child that emerged so unhealthy that it cannot gain the distinction of viable living.

(The ruling is unclear regarding a fetus that will certainly be born prematurely, and then placed in an incubator – especially nowadays, when there is a very good chance that it will fully develop – as to whether a Gentile who aborts this fetus is liable for a capital sin. On one hand, this fetus should be considered as living, since it has a better chance for survival after its premature birth than a mortally wounded person. Conversely, an underdeveloped fetus that will be born prematurely does not yet have the potential to be born as a “viable living person.” The ruling is likewise unclear regarding a woman who died with a 9-month old fetus still in her womb: is one who destroys this fetus liable for a capital sin, since it is possible for the fetus to be pulled out alive from the mother’s body? Or is he exempt from a capital sin, since the fetus would die if it is left alone? It appears that in both cases, one who aborts the fetus is exempt from a capital sin because it will not be born as a viable living person.)

[15] Rambam, Laws of Kings 9:4 and Laws of Murderers 2:7.

[16] Meaning that each knew that his actions would cause the victim to die. A person is not exempt from punishment if he hastens someone’s death in order to lesson the suffering (even for a victim who was mortally injured by another person). See The Divine Code, Part I, footnote 87, regarding one who inadvertently neglected to learn the precepts of a Noahide commandment.

[17] Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg agrees that the second person who struck and subsequently killed a mortally wounded victim is liable; and therefore it is also correct that one who kills a goses is liable, even according to the Talmudic Sages who hold that a goses who came to his situation as a victim of a person’s action is judged to be the same as a mortally wounded person.

However, he questions if the first of two people who struck a mortally ill victim is liable, for according to Torah Law, a Jew who struck a victim first is exempt if a second person then struck and thereby killed the victim (and is therefore liable for murder). Also, Tosafot on Tractate Sanhedrin asks why the first of two people who struck a goses should be exempt, if as a general rule, most people in a goses condition will not recover. Tosafot answers there that Torah Law requires a striker to be held in jail until it is determined if the victim died from his action. Thus it stands to reason that we don’t automatically make the first striker liable just on the basis that in the majority of cases a goses will die, and therefore it is considered that only the second (final) striker has killed the goses. It is unclear from the opinion of Tosafot if a Gentile who is the first of two who strike a goses is exempt on the same grounds, or if the majority rule is followed, making the first striker also liable, since he gives what is considered a lethal blow.

The author responds that there is no source in Torah for requiring a Gentile to be jailed while it is being determined if his action will result in a victim’s death. (Although there is obviously a logical allowance for a Noahide court to do this, it has no bearing on whether or not the person will be liable according to Torah Law.) Rather, the Torah Law for Gentiles follows the majority of situations.

[18] See Rambam, Laws of the Principal Impurities ch. 2.

[19] A person in this condition is considered to already be dead, and not in the category of a goses. A goses is still considered fully alive.

[20] Igrot Moshe Ĥoshen Mishpat says that this law applies as well for Gentiles.

[21] Gentiles are not obligated in the Jewish commandment (Leviticus 19:16), “Do not stand (passively) by your brother’s blood,” and therefore they are not required to save a Gentile or a Jew who does not want to be saved. See Igrot Moshe Ĥoshen Mishpat, that even for a Jew, there is no commandment to lengthen his life if he can only live for a short while and with suffering. This does not fall in the category of the cited commandment, since the person’s life cannot be saved. For Gentiles, who do not have this commandment, if the patient does not wish to be saved, there is no obligation to do an action to save him, even if it would be successful. This is clear from Tosafot on Tractate Sanhedrin in regard to saving the life of a pregnant mother at the expense of the life of her fetus. Although a person has no jurisdiction over his own body for harming himself, we are discussing here only the issue of preventing the application of a life-support system. One who is terminally ill and suffering, and doesn’t want to continue living, is not obligated to prolong his suffering in order to prolong his life; therefore he is permitted to put himself in a passive situation where his terminal illness will take its natural course, if he will not be actively violating any commandment.

[22] This version is used by Rambam in his commentary on Mishna Sanhedrin. This is the version in the Jerusalem Talmud.

[23] Rambam, Laws of the Sanhedrinibid.: “Each person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for my sake,’ ” (thereby including Gentiles in this fundamental principle).

Rabbi Moshe Weiner

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