"With the recent John Roberts nomination, we wanted to give an overview of abortion from both a religious and ethical standpoint," explained Jon Broder, the moderator of the panel and administrative chair of the synagogue's religious committee, referring to the nomination of the federal judge to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Rabbi Jon Cutler, religious leader of the Reconstructionist synagogue, represented the Jewish position on the panel; Doreen Linder, Southeast chapter development coordinator for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, defended her organization's position; and Rev. Roger Buchanan, a retired Protestant minister now working for Planned Parenthood of Bucks County, supported the pro-choice viewpoint.
The nearly two-hour discussion began with a brief overview and history of the issue; each panelist was then given time to state his or her point of view.
"We have a moral obligation as a society to not have a child unless it can be nurtured and wanted," said Buchanan. "An abortion is not an easy decision, but a decision a women has to make responsibly with her family. And the decision needs to be honored because she has made it."
Buchanan said that using the power of the government could not be used to determine the fate of a woman's decision.
Linder, raised Roman-Catholic, countered Buchanan's argument with the idea that life starts at the time of conception.
Keeping abortions legal signifies a real moral problem in our society, she asserted.
"We have become a comfortable society where we don't want anything that makes us work harder or take responsibility. [We] have become comfortable with the idea of death," she said.
"The loving thing to do," she added, "is to help these women" through government-supported programs that advocate parenting and aid to single mothers.
Standing somewhere in the middle of these two points of view, Cutler took a stab at offering the Jewish stance. Unlike other theologies, he explained, Judaism is not absolute, and provides answers on a case-by-case basis.
He told the 30 or so people in the audience – most of whom were members of the synagogue – that there is no hard-and-fast Jewish law answering the abortion question. Rabbis do agree, however, that a mother's life should never be put in jeopardy, and that abortion should never be used as a form of birth control.
To avoid too much of an animated discussion on a topic that could possibly get quite heated, audience members wrote down their questions, which were then collected. The moderator posed them to the appropriate panelist.
The audience seemed especially interested in how Linder would deal with a fetus that had Tay-Sachs – "Maybe the baby's fate will turn around" – or what Judaism said about the morning-after pill – "not permissible."
Cutler said the synagogue's medical-ethics programs – to be held four times a year, with the next one tackling a human being's right to die and the Terry Schiavo case – was started purposely on Saturday to entice people into the sanctuary. The hope for this program was that people would stay for Selichot prayers – verses of forgiveness recited the week before Rosh Hashanah.
And those in attendance endorsed the effort.
"I'm very glad the rabbi decided to have this presentation. [Talking about abortion in a temple] didn't strike me as odd because we talk about so many different issues," stated synagogue member Joyce Burstein of Doylestown. "He felt that there were a lot of medical and ethical questions that were coming up. Why not discuss them?"