Democratic lawyer and Attorney General candidate Daniel Uhlfelder has come on as co-counsel to a South Florida synagogue’s lawsuit challenging Florida’s 15-week abortion ban.
The lawsuit, filed last month by Rabbi Barry Silver and Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach, contends that the new law banning most abortions after 15 weeks violates the state constitution’s right to privacy and freedom of religion.
Silver’s complaint, which runs parallel to another the American Civil Liberties Union filed June 1, says Jewish law provides that “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”
Florida’s new law, which went into effect July 1, allows for abortions after 15 weeks if the mother’s life is at risk or if two doctors concur there is a fetal abnormality. Republican lawmakers repeatedly refused during the 2022 Legislative Session to add exceptions in the measure for cases of rape, incest or human trafficking.
Uhlfelder, who faces two opponents in the Democratic Primary to determine who will challenge incumbent Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody, said the lawsuit “cuts to the core” of why he’s running for office.
“I will always fight for freedom, justice, our constitution, and human rights,” he said in a statement. “While women’s rights and religious freedoms are under attack, Rabbi Barry Silver and Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor have decided to fight back. I am proud to join this important lawsuit as co-counsel as we work to restore the fundamental human rights that unjust abortion bans have stripped away.”
Uhlfelder and Silver were scheduled to speak to members of the press Thursday afternoon. The meeting was later postponed due to “unforeseen circumstances,” Uhlfelder’s campaign said.
About six in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal “in all or most cases,” according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Support among Jewish people is considerably higher. Of more than 800 Jews surveyed in 2014, 83%, supported a woman’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
Some Jews point to the Torah, which non-Jews refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible, and the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the main source of Jewish religious law and theology, as containing numerous entries asserting that life begins at birth and placing more value on the life of the mother than the embryo she carries.
However, while some argue that laws restricting abortion violate religious freedom, Florida’s new law appears in keeping with standards set forth in Hebrew texts.
The first biblical reference to what constitutes human life appears in the book of Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”
Later, the book of Exodus states, “And should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarries but there is no fatality, he shall surely be punished, when the woman’s husband makes demands of him, and he shall give (restitution) according to the judges’ (orders). But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life.”
The Jewish interpretation of that passage is that if a woman miscarries, the person or people responsible are not liable for a capital offense. However, if the injury is fatal for the woman, the person responsible should be put to death.
The inclusion of “a life for a life,” which is followed by the more famous, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” makes clear that a woman is considered living person whose murder is punishable by death and a fetus is not.
Support for abortion when a mother’s life is in danger is explicitly laid out in the Talmud (Tohorot 2, Oholot 7:6): “If a woman is having trouble giving birth they cut up the child in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of (the child). But if the greater part has come out, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.”
This passage, which reinforces those from the Torah making birth a prerequisite to personhood, states that until the “greater part” a fetus — long considered synonymous with the head — emerges from the birth canal, it may be dismembered for the sake of the mother’s wellbeing.
Supplementary to that is a person’s right to self-defense. As Immanuel Jakobovits, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, wrote in 1965: “This ruling, sanctioning embryotomy to save the mother in her mortal conflict with her unborn child, is also the sole reference to abortion in the principal codes of Jewish law. They add only the further argument that such a child, being in ‘pursuit’ of the mother’s life, may be destroyed as an ‘aggressor’ following the general principle of self-defense.”
But according to Jakobovits, the classic sources of Jewish law do not condone abortion outside circumstances when a mother’s life is at risk.
“(The) only indication considered for abortion is hazard to the mother’s life,” he wrote, adding that “otherwise, the destruction of an unborn child is a grave offense, although not murder.”