Is it permissible for a physician to induce the onset of labor for a pregnant woman, such as by breaking the water or administering inducing drugs (such as Pitocin)?
Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron (Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel) addresses this issue in his work Binyan Ab (vol. 4, 52), and presents a number of general guidelines as to determining the permissibility of induced labor. Needless to say, all such questions must be brought to a competent Halachic authority, as each case must be addressed individually.
Rav Bakshi Doron writes that if the woman already began feeling labor pains, and the doctor wishes to induce labor out of concern for fetal distress or the well being of the mother, then certainly this is permissible. Since the inducing is done out of medical concerns, in order to avoid potential risks to the child or mother, there is no question whatsoever that the procedure is permissible. Similarly, if the woman has passed her due date, and the doctor is concerned about the medical repercussions of an extended pregnancy and deems it advisable to induce labor, inducing is permissible, even if labor pains have not begun. Inducing labor is also allowed for the purpose of alleviating the woman’s pain, or because she is feeling anxious about the delivery. Halacha affords considerable weight to the woman’s mental state during labor, and thus these factors are also grounds for permitting the inducing of labor.
However, inducing labor is not permitted if it is done for the purpose of convenience. For example, a woman may not ask to have labor induced so that the child would be born on Sunday and she prefers a Sunday morning Berit. Similarly, if the physician has scheduled a vacation and therefore wants to induce labor so he could deliver the child before his vacation, the inducing is forbidden.
One reason for this prohibition is presented by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Russia-New York, 1895-1986), in his work Iggerot Moshe (Y.D., vol. 2, 74). Rabbi Feinstein writes that the situation of childbirth poses a danger to the woman’s life, but God ordained that women undergo this experience as part of the natural process of reproduction. He therefore grants women special protection during labor, and for this reason most women survive childbirth despite the dangers entailed. However, this special protection is earned only if one follows the natural course of labor and delivery. If one intervenes with the natural process, he forfeits the protection afforded by the natural progression of labor, thus subjecting himself to danger.
Rav Bakshi Doron adds another reason why unnecessary induced labor should be avoided. Just as the fetus develops physically over the course of gestation, it also undergoes a process of spiritual development. Thus, for example, the Sages speak of an angel that teaches the infant the entire Torah in the womb. This refers to the process of spiritual development that a child must undergo before entering the world. Therefore, just as we would certainly not encourage disrupting the fetus’ physical development, similarly, we must not interfere unnecessarily with the spiritual development that takes place in the womb. Rav Bakshi Doron draws an analogy to those who believe in the powers of constellations and the Zodiac. Parents would certainly not induce labor and have their child born a week early if this would mean he would be born in an ominous astrological period, instead of during an auspicious sign of the Zodiac. Certainly, then, for us, who do not give too much credence to astrological powers but instead recognize the importance of a fetus’ spiritual development, disrupting this process by inducing labor unnecessarily should be discouraged.
Of course, as mentioned, when inducing is deemed necessary for medical purposes then it is certainly permissible.
Summary: Generally speaking, inducing labor is permissible when it is deemed necessary for medical purposes, but is forbidden if it is done for purposes of scheduling and convenience. In all situations, one should consult with a Rabbi for personal guidance.