Sanhedrin 72B says a fetus becomes a person when its head emerges. But I have heard that abortion is justified based on the permission to kill a rodef (deadly pursuer). But it seems to me that, logically, a fetus cannot be a rodef since it is part of the mother before it emerges. I am looking for someone to clarify the status of a fetus before it emerges (e.g., is it a person? does it have free will?) and clarify the concept of rodef as it pertains to fetus and abortion.

Update: This article is relevant but does not really grapple with the question above:

Update2: We do not postpone the death penalty of a pregnant murderer. She is put to death and her fetus with her.

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    Can you quote the Gemara that says that?
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 14:49
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    Where have you heard that abortion is justified based on Rodef?
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 14:50
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    Very similar: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/39015/472 Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:21
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    does it have free will Why would you assume a fetus is intelligent enough to express decisions of free will? || Is this somehow related to the rest of the question?
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:34
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    @YehudaW Consider editing any clarification into the question. FWIW IIRC, yes we would kill a child threatening others, and even an insane person threatening others.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:42

4 Answers 4


This seems to be a dispute between Rashi and Rambam.

According to Rashi (Sanhedrin 72b DH Yatza Rosho), the fetus is not considered a separate entity.

יצא ראשו - באשה המקשה לילד ומסוכנת וקתני רישא החיה פושטת ידה וחותכתו ומוציאתו לאברים דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו ולהציל את אמו אבל יצא ראשו אין נוגעים בו להורגו דהוה ליה כילוד ואין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

"If its head came out" – regarding a woman who is having difficulty giving birth and is in danger. The first section teaches, "The midwife sticks out her hand and cuts [the fetus] and brings it out as limbs," for so long as it has not come out to the air of the world it is not a soul, and it can be given over to kill it and save its mother. However, "if its head came out, we do not touch it" to kill it, because it is like it is born, and "we do not push off one soul for another."

Rambam (Rotzeiach 1:9), on the other hand, seems to learn the first clause differently from Rashi. Rather than saying you can kill the fetus because it is not a person, he explicitly connects this halacha to those regarding killing someone who is trying to kill someone else.

אַף זוֹ מִצְוַת לֹא תַּעֲשֶׂה שֶׁלֹּא לָחוּס עַל נֶפֶשׁ הָרוֹדֵף. לְפִיכָךְ הוֹרוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁהָעֻבָּרָה שֶׁהִיא מַקְשָׁה לֵילֵד מֻתָּר לַחְתֹּךְ הָעֵבָּר בְּמֵעֶיהָ בֵּין בְּסַם בֵּין בְּיָד מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא כְּרוֹדֵף אַחֲרֶיהָ לְהָרְגָהּ.

Also this is a negative commandment, not to have mercy on the soul of a pursuer. Therefore, the Sages ruled that a pregnant woman who has difficulty giving birth – it is permissible to cut up the fetus in her innards, whether with medicine or by hand, because he is like one who is pursuing after her to kill her.

Even the Rambam, though, seems to be unclear on this point; while he explicitly connects this case to one of a pursuer, he does say that the fetus is only like one who is pursuing her, not one who is.


This is a great question, I found it almost exactly in Teshuvot Geone Batrae cited bellow. and I wrote a second answer based on this Shut. Here is my first draft.

1.Gemara Sanhedrin 57b fetus: "the man who is within the man" is a person:

בן נח נהרג ....‏ משום רבי ישמעאל אמרו: אף על העוברין .‏

On the authority of R`Ishmael it was said: [He (A Ben Noach) is executed] even for the murder of an embryo.

מאי טעמיה דרבי ישמעאל? דכתיב (בראשית ט') שפך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך, איזהו אדם שהוא באדם - הוי אומר זה עובר שבמעי אמו.‏

What is R'Ishmael's reason? Because it is written, Whoso sheddeth the blood of man within [another] man, shall his blood be shed. What is a man within another man? - An embryo in his mother's womb.

2.Gemara Sanhedrin 72b, Mishna Ohalot 7, 6 Embryo life is less important than standard person live (the mother life and less important than the killer's life, if someone kills fetus, he is chayav mamon to the father and not exempt as he would be by kimleh bederaba mineh if fetus killing was chayav mita) .

אמר רב הונא קטן הרודף ניתן להצילו בנפשו קסבר רודף אינו צריך התראה לא שנא גדול ולא שנא קטן איתיביה רב חסדא לרב הונא יצא ראשו אין נוגעין בו לפי שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש ואמאי רודף הוא שאני התם דמשמיא קא רדפי לה נימא מסייעא ליה רודף שהיה רודף אחר חבירו להורגו אומר לו ראה שישראל הוא ובן ברית הוא והתורה אמרה (בראשית ט) שופך דם שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך, אמרה תורה: הצל דמו של זה בדמו של זה. ‏

R'Huna said: A minor in pursuit may be slain to save the pursued. Thus he maintains that a pursuer, whether an adult or a minor, need not be formally warned. R'Hisda asked R'Huna: we learnt: Once his head has come forth, he may not be harmed, because one life may not be taken to save another. But why so? Is he not a pursuer? - There it is different, for she is pursued by heaven. Shall we say that the following supports him? [Viz. ,] If a man was pursuing after his fellow to slay him, he (observer) says to him, 'See, he is an Israelite, and a son of the covenant, whilst the Torah hath said, Whosoever would shed the blood of a man, [to save] that man shall his own blood be shed, meaning, save the blood of the pursued by the blood of the pursuer'! - That is based on the ruling of R'Jose son of R'Judah.

3.We learnt a two Drashot from the words "Adam Baadam", Adam Baadam is an fetus. The din of chiuv mita for the murder of an embryo is only for Bene Noach, Gemara 57b told about Bene Noach, Rambam ruled it for Bene Noach excluding Jews (Shoftim, Melachim, 9, 4):

בֶּן נוֹחַ שֶׁהָרַג נֶפֶשׁ, אַפִלּוּ עֹבֶר בִּמְעֵי אִמּוֹ--נֶהְרָג עָלָיו. וְכֵן אִם הָרַג טְרֵפָה, אוֹ שֶׁכְּפָתוֹ וּנְתָנוֹ לִפְנֵי הָאֲרִי, אוֹ שֶׁהִנִּיחוֹ בְּרָעָב עַד שֶׁמֵּת--הוֹאִיל וְהֵמִית מִכָּל מָקוֹם, נֶהְרָג. וְכֵן אִם הָרַג רוֹדֵף שֶׁיָּכוֹל לְהַצִּילוֹ בְּאֶחָד מֵאֵבָרָיו--נֶהְרָג עָלָיו, מַה שְׁאֵין כֵּן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל .‏

4.In Sanhedrin 72b Baadam is for the "by the man (the rodef would be killed by a man)".

5.the two drashot regard two different cases,

  1. The murder of an fetus.

the status of a fetus before it emerges [sic] is it a person?

--> yes

  1. The fetus (not the the newborn) pursuing the mother.

6.The fetuse's life is sufficiently similar to life to punish Ben Noach who killed it, according to the Gemara 57b (from this verse Gemara learnt also general killing prohibition in bne Noach) .

7.The competition between the life of someone who already born and someone who has not yet been born is not an equal competition, two different kinds of life are compared. You asked in a comment

How does Shemot (Exodus) 21:22 fit with your answer "murder of an embryo"? (Shemot 21:22 says, "if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no [other] harm [to the woman] follow, he shall be surely fined," JPS.)

--> The answer is the same than with the Rodef, When the life of the murder is more valuable than the life of the dead (here the value of the life of the fetus is even less than a the life of a trefa man) there is no "nefashot case" not only because of edut sheyi ata yachol lehazima, but there is no chiuv mita. For a ben Noach there is a special stringency, for every sin he is chayav mita.

But I must admit that the SMA CM 425 and the Noda Bihuda CM tiniana 59, and the Teshuvot Geone Batrae agrees entirely with you.

If the childbirth migh kill the mother, the issue of Rodef begins.

if this fetus was only a piece of meat, there wouldn't be question of redifa, but the fetus has its own life, despite that he is not separated from mother body.

a fetus cannot be a rodef since it is part of the mother before it emerges

--> The Gemara in Sanhedrin 57b proofs that he is not really a piece of meat

The Gemara (according to Rashi's comment) said that as long as he is not born, despite that he is an other person, the lack of separated life eliminate the question of choice.

Sanhedrin 72B says a fetus becomes a person when its head emerges

--> That's not completely right.

8.The lack of what you called "free will" of the newborn is addressed by Gemara, his birth, his existence is not a free will and his life starting is the danger, Gemara called this situation (after the head exit but this is right even in the previous step) משמיא קא רדפי לה. Fetus (and new born) has no free will and they said Mishamaya Kararadfe lah. He is compelled to go out. Before head emergency, he has no independent life, this lack of separate life makes the superiority of the mother life beside fetus life, she has life and (mother life which is separated life is greater than non separated (from mother) life)

9.Parenthesis concerning "mishmaya karadfe lah" : For instance, idiocy is a lack of free will, which constitute a ptor in mitsvot for the idiot, but not for a rodef who is idiot, I wanted only to say that this "free will" is not fully contrary of mishmaya karadfey lah. A kind of will is referred by this expression, not "full will", but a multitude of possibilities. An idiot who pursues someone will be killed. But here the new born cannot, even randomly, make something else.

the status of a fetus before it emerges [sic] does it have free will?)

--> Not only he hasn't free will, but he also is not a Rodef he is just pushed. His redifa is not a real redifa after the maskana of the Gemara, because he also is pushed, "mishamaya Karadfe leih". But the Hava Amina of the Gemara was that there is no nuance between an idiot or a child who is pursuing someone with a gun. In maskana he is not a Rodef and there is no proof against Rav Huna. Despite the strange formulation of the Rambam, nezikin, rotseach 1, 9, who cited the word rodef for a fetus, Acharonim explained that this was not precisely his intent, see Teshuvot Geone Batrae 45 cited by the Leshed Hashemen in Rambam

Conclusion, Fetus has life, it is prohibited to kill it, Bene Noach are sentenced to death for this sin but not Jews. Concerning Rodef, the fetus-rodef's life is less valuable than the mother life which is already a separate life.

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – kouty
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 3:26
  • @YehudaW I added a special paragraph for your kushia from shemot 21: 22, citing noda bihuda, sma, teshuvot gb.
    – kouty
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 18:51

Maimonides is the earliest source (I know of) that directly connects the principle of rodef to the leniency regarding feticide in order save the life of the mother:

אף זו מצות לא תעשה שלא לחוס על נפש הרודף. לפיכך הורו חכמים שהעוברה שהיא מקשה לילד מותר לחתוך העובר במיעיה. בין בסם בין ביד מפני שהוא כרודף אחריה להורגה. ואם משהוציא ראשו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש וזהו טבעו של עולם:

This too is a biblical prohibition - to not have mercy on the soul of a pursuer (i.e. it is forbidden to have mercy on a pursuer). Therefore the Sages instructed that (in the case of) a pregnant women having a life-threatening labor, it is permitted to cut the fetus in her innards. Whether with a chemical or by hand, for it is similar to one who is pursuing her to kill her. And if his head has already emerged, one is not allowed to touch him for it is not allowed to push (i.e. chose) one life over another, and this (i.e. the threat to the mother's life) is the nature of the world.

From his language it is fairly clear that he is not entirely equating the two concepts. Arguably, he is emphasizing a parallel between the two cases based on the underlying basis for why we generally do not kill to save a life. In the case of murdering another to save oneself, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) records:

סברא הוא דההוא דאתא לקמיה דרבה ואמר ליה אמר לי מרי דוראי זיל קטליה לפלניא ואי לא קטלינא לך אמר ליה לקטלוך ולא תיקטול מי יימר דדמא דידך סומק טפי דילמא דמא דהוא גברא סומק טפי

It is common sense. Even as one who came before Raba and said to him, 'The governor of my town has ordered me, "Go and kill so and so; if not, I will slay thee"'. He answered him, 'Let him rather slay you than that you should commit murder; who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.'

Arguably, this logic does not apply neither in the case of the rodef (because of his chosen state) nor in that of the dangerous pregnancy (because of his incomplete state).

Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that abortion is within the general rubric of murder, albeit of a lesser degree. See e.g. how the Talmud, when discussing the basic Noahide laws (Sanhedrin 57b), infers the prohibition from within the language of the prohibition of regular murder

משום רבי ישמעאל אמרו אף על העוברין מאי טעמיה דרבי ישמעאל דכתיב (בראשית ט, ו) שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך איזהו אדם שהוא באדם הוי אומר זה עובר שבמעי אמו

In the name of Rabbi Yishmael it was said: [A Noachide may be put to death] even for the killing of a fetus. What is Rabbi Yishmael’s source? For it is written, “One who spills the blood of a person shall have his own blood spilled by another person [literally read: one who spills the blood of a person inside another person etc.].” (Bereishit 9:6). Which person is inside another person? This is referring to the fetus in the mother’s womb.

See Igroth Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:69; I.Y. Unterman, Noam VI (1963); 1-11 For additional viewpoints, see also: http://halachipedia.com/index.php?title=Abortion

  • Rasha in Sanhedrin?? Krisus? Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 15:43
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    I thought we generally DO kill to save a life. What do you mean when you say we generally do not?
    – Yehuda W
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:21
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    is within the general rubric of murder What exactly is that supposed to mean? Do you know that R. Yishmael is of the opinion that there are only 7 mitzvot for b'nei noah? Let's say he is, do we see anything other than that in the case of gentiles it is categorized in their general category of retsiha? Maybe the 7 mitzvot are seven broad categories. Can we actually draw conclusions to the status of abortion performed by a Jew, from the fact that it is prohibited for a gentile?
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:40
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    So what happens if the fetus causes the death of the mother -- spilling her blood? Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 7:45
  • @EvanCarroll In general, anyone below the age of majority is not subject to statutory punishment.
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 3:20

This is a very good question, a deep sheelat chacham, I found it in Teshuvot Geone Batrae (melukat by the Shaagat Arieh; this Teshuva has been signed by Rabbi Yaakov Ben Efraim Shor, called Zalman) number 45, followed by an answer:

מהא דכתב הרמב"ם פרק א' מהלכות רוצח וז"ל ואף זה הוא מצוות לא תעשה שלא לחוס על נפש הרודף לפיכך הורו חכמים עוברת שמקשה לילד מותר לחתוך העובר במעיה בין בסם בין ביד מפני שהוא כרודף אחריה להורגה ואם משהוציא ראשו אין נוגעים בו מפני שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש וזה טבעו של עולם עד כאן לשונו וממש בלשון הזה כתב גם כן הסמ"ג ומקורם מהמשנה סוף פרק ז' דאוהלות עיין שם. והנה לפי עניות דעתי קשה להולמן דברי שני המאורות הגדולים כי לפי עניות דעתי הם היפוך הגמרא דסנהדרין פרק בן סורר דף ע"ב עמוד ב' וזה לשונה אמר רב הונא קטן הרודף ניתן להצילו בנפשו ומקשה הגמרא איתיבי ממתניתין הנ"ל דנן יצא ראשו אין נוגעין כו' ואמאי רודף הוא פירש רש"י וזה לשונו דאיירי באשה המקשה לילד וקתני ברישא דמתניתין דאם לא הוציא ראשו עדיין חותכין הולד במיעיה והטעם דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לא נפש הוא וניתן להציל את נפש אימו ואם יצא ראשו הרי הוא כילוד עד כאן לשונו ומשני שאני התם דהא משמיא קא רדפי לה הרי לפנינו דמקשה לילד אינו מקרי רודף כי משמיא קא רדפי לה ומאי ששרי לחתכו ברישא הוא מטעם שכתב רש"י דעדיין לא מקרי נפש ואיך כתבו הם ז"ל לפיכך ומסקי הטעם רודף הוא ושרי כו' ועוד יש להקשות לדבריהם קשה מרישא אסיפא דאף בהוציא ראשו נדוני מדין רודף. ונראה לפי עניות דעתי ליישב דבריהם בזה האופן דודאי גם הם סבירא להו דמשום הכי מותר ברישא לחתכו משום דעדיין לא מקרי נפש כמו שכתב רש"י ז"ל ואף אם היה שייך בו טעם רודף לא היו צריכין לו דכולי עלמא יודו לרש"י ז"ל דלא מקרי נולד וראיה דהא הנוגף במעי אשה אין לו דין רוצח ומשלם דמי ולדות ואי הוה מקרי נפש היה חייב עליו מיתה כדין הורג נפש וכדאיתא סברא זו בסמ"ע סימן תכ"ג ואם כן אף אם היה אפשר לפרש דטעם הוא מכח רודף היה קשה עליהם דאין צורך טעם זה ומה דנקטו טעם רודף היינו דצריכו לומר הטעם למה שרו חכמים להמיתו במיתה חמורה ולחתכו בעודו חי ואפילו בידיים ולא דוקא על ידי סם מה שאין כן בשכבר נעשה המעשה לא מקרי רודף אם כן בתינוק נמי למה התירו להרגו בידים ולא בסם דוקא וביותר במיתה חמורה כזה ולא איצטריכא לברור לו מיתה יפה וכבר איצטריכא בפרק נגמר הדין ללמוד מקרא בגנב במחתרת שיכולים להרגו בכל מיתה שירצה אם כן למה התירו בתינוק כל זה ועל זה רצו הרמב"ם והסמ"ג לפרש שמאחר שמצורף לזה הטעם דלא מיקרי נפש מקרי נמי רודף אף על פי דטעם זה לחוד אינו מספיק להורגו כמו רודף כי משמיא רדפוה מכל מקום מאחר שכבר מותר להרגו מצרפים גם כן טעם דרודף ויכול להרגו בכל מיתה שירצו כמו רודף דרודף וגנב במחתרת דין אחד יש להם כמו שמבואר בגמרא ובפוסקים...‏

  1. The TGB ask first your first question, the conclusion of the Gemara is that the fetus still not became a person (nefesh) before the head pass through, so, in a case in which the childbirth endangers the mother's life, one can kill the fetus without the reason of Rodef. Why in Rambam and Smag the reason to allow this action is rodef?

  2. TGB adds a kushia, that according this Rambam and Smag conclusion, the fetus is rodef, so the newborn must be also rodef, one must have the right to kill the newborn even after the head exiting.

  3. He gave proof of the non person status of the fetus from the suggia of the accidentally caused death of the fetus (that you also mentioned in one of your comments). In this suggia, the responsible for the death of the fetus is ordered to pay a money for the damage. If the fetus was a person, he should have been a murder beshogeg, who is exempt from payments.

  4. He answered that there is a combination of the non person status of the fetus and a low degree rodef status (a rodef in spite of himself). When the two reasons are added, together, the din of rodef come back and one can kill the fetus with his own hands, not only by poisoning. (See bellow a Teruts of the Noda Bihuda(1))

Summary, there is a combination of a non-person status and a weak rodef status (rodef in spite of himself). This teruts is not obvious. I wrote an other explanation in a previous answer. My answer was that the non-person status of the fetus is a non person status concerning the person status of the mother, or alternatively the death of his killer (who is condemned to financial indemnity only) , but concerning the prohibition to kill him, this is a person status, as we see in Sanhedrin 57b when the Gemara called him a man within an other man.

(1) The Noda Bihuda Tinyana CM 59 (found thanks to nos'e kelim in Rambam) has an other teruts. He said that the fact that the fetus is not a "Nefesh" is not sufficient to allow to kill it, e.g. if someone is Trefa, is it not allowed to kill the trefa in way to salve the helthy man, so we need the reason of redifa here to allow to kill the fetus. In the Shut Noda Bihuda you can see an annotation called "hagaot hageonim" which report in name of the Meiri, that Jews must hand a trefa man (if there is one) over to Goym killers if the Goym aske one man to kill.

See also Chidushei Rabenu Chayim Halevi on Rambam hilchot Rotseach 1, 9

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