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Gilla K. Shapiro, Jonathan K. Crane
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.

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Abortion refers to the procedure for terminating a pregnancy before the fetus has reached viability, that is, able to survive independently. An abortion aims to medicinally or surgically extract the embryo (or fetus) and placenta from the uterus. The term “abortion” (ijhāḍ) signifies the deliberate ending of a pregnancy, and can be contrasted with a spontaneous abortion (i.e., a miscarriage) (Shapiro, 2014). Though abortions have been practiced for many centuries, there has been substantial debate concerning the bioethics of abortion in many cultures. Abortion, and the laws that regulate the practice, continue to be one of the most commonly and emotively discussed medical-legal issues of our time (Shapiro, 2014).

Religion plays a significant role in the bioethical decisions of abortion (Hassan et al., 2014; Hertel and Hughes, 1987). As in many other religions, deliberate termination of pregnancy and its consequences have been greatly debated within Islam (Bagheri and Afshar, 2011; Padela, Shanawani, and Arozullah, 2011). Nevertheless, Western examination of religious discussions of abortion has concentrated predominantly on Christian and secular positions, while Islamic perspectives have been comparatively under-researched (Atighetchi, 2007; Brockopp, 2003; Brockopp and Eich, 2008).

The bioethical discussion of abortion in Islam has great significance for health policy, which impacts how women seek out abortions, rates of unsafe abortions, and the effect of abortions on national maternal mortality rates (Koenig and Al Shohaib, 2014; Shapiro, 2014). Though an abortion is potentially a routine and safe medical procedure, many abortions are not safe (Berer, 2004). The World Health Organization has defined an unsafe abortion as terminating an unwanted pregnancy in an environment that fails to meet the minimal medical standards, that is conducted by a person who lacks the necessary skills, or both (World Health Organization, 2011a). Worldwide, between 19 and 22 million unsafe abortions take place annually, 97 percent of which occur in developing countries (World Health Organization, 2011b). An unsafe abortion can result in serious maternal complications, morbidity, disability (e.g., sepsis, infection, hemorrhage, and trauma), or mortality; unsafe abortions result in approximately 47,000 annual deaths (Brookman-Amissah and Moyo, 2004, Singh and Ratnam, 1998).

Many have argued that in order to reduce rates of maternal morbidity and especially mortality, the right to abortion should be legally protected (Singh and Ratnam, 1998). For example, Berer’s (2004) examination of 160 countries revealed that there is a lower incidence of unsafe abortions and much lower mortality from unsafe abortions in countries that have legislation that allows abortion on broad grounds compared to countries with legislation that greatly restricts abortion. Further, Singh and Ratnam (1998) explain that maternal mortality from unsafe abortions is practically unknown in countries where abortion is available. For example, Jewkes et al. (2005) found that in South Africa the incidence of infection resulting from abortion decreased by 52 percent after the abortion law was liberalized. Similarly, a change in Romania’s abortion law drastically impacted maternal mortality rates (Department for International Development, 2005). In Muslim-majority countries, some evidence has shown that unsafe abortions are common (Hessini, 2008). For example, Razzak et al. (2011) report that maternal mortality rates are twice as high in Muslim-majority countries compared to non-Muslim-majority countries.

It should not surprise that perceptions of Islam’s position on abortion affect national policies in some countries (Bowen, 2003). Most Muslim-majority countries’ abortion policies are what could be called conservative (Shapiro, 2014). In an analysis of forty-seven Muslim-majority countries, eighteen—including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, and fifteen others—were found to permit abortions only in cases where the life of the pregnant woman is threatened and not on any other grounds (e.g., cases of fetal impairment, incest, or rape, whereby the woman’s physical or mental health is threatened, or where the woman is or will be unable to care for the child) (Shapiro, 2014). Though most Muslim-majority countries are conservative with regard to abortion policies, substantial diversity exists in these countries: Islamic countries—including Bahrain, Tunisia, Turkey, and a number of former Soviet Socialist Republics—permit abortion “on request” (the broadest indication possible) (Shapiro, 2014), and thus evidence what can be considered expansive abortion policies.

Though divergent approaches to abortion law have been argued to be associated with religion (Boonstra, 2001; Daar, Bakdash, and Khitamy, 2008; Hertel and Hughes, 1987; Jelen, 2014), it is important to also consider the remarkable heterogeneity of these countries concerning their gross domestic product (GDP), political and legal systems, religious sects and schools, cultural past (e.g., communist rule), representation of women in the workforce, among other factors (Hildebrandt, 2015; Shapiro, 2014). For example, Hildebrandt (2015) conducted a quantitative analysis of 170 countries and found that a higher percentage of Muslims in a population was significantly negatively correlated with a liberal abortion law (r = -0.19, p<0.05); however, further analysis revealed that this association is likely confounded by a third variable, specifically the “share of women in the workplace.”

As evidenced by the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations is committed to reducing maternal mortality rates and promoting universal access to reproductive health (United Nations, 2012; World Health Organization, 2011b). In general, only partial attention, however, has been paid to the central role of Islamic bioethics and Shariʿah law in developing and implementing health policies that promote women’s health (Shapiro, 2014). Indeed, while many Muslim-majority countries are currently under significant pressure to liberalize their abortion policies, developing policy in them may face challenges if Islamic bioethical discussions are not considered (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014; Bowen, 2003; Hassan, 2001; Hassan et al., 2014; Hessini 2008). Despite substantial contributions of Islamic scholars to the debate, only a few studies have been published in the field (Brockopp and Eich, 2008). This article provides an overview of relevant classical religious sources; and reviews further compelling literature from the contemporary period (e.g., fatwas, abortion policy in Muslim countries, and transnational commitments). We conclude with a brief discussion of pertinent Islamic bioethical issues regarding abortion.

Discussions of Abortion in Islam

The guiding texts of Islamic religious authority, the Qurʾān and the Sunnah, do not directly address abortion (Shapiro, 2014). Nevertheless, the Qurʾān does describe the prohibition of infanticide and the mistreatment of unwanted children (Rogers, 1999; Shapiro, 2014). For example, one passage from the Qurʾān warns “And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin” (17:31). Though this and other passages in the Qurʾān refer to live offspring (and are therefore not directly discussing abortion), they nevertheless provide insight about the Qurʾān's general pro-natalist position (Katz, 2003). Indeed, Islam, like other monotheistic religions, encourages procreation and believes that “everything [including the body] belongs to God” (Atighetchi, 2007). Accordingly, a strong value is placed on human life. The Qurʾān therefore condemns killing, and in particular infanticide out of economic hardship (see passages 6:151, 6:137, or 17:31). As a result, conducting an abortion for economic reasons is especially controversial (Bowen, 2003; Shapiro, 2014).

Similar to Aristotelean philosophy, early Christianity, and to a certain degree rabbinic Judaism, Islam holds a dualistic conceptualization of human nature. In particular, in Islam human flesh becomes a person only once a soul presents itself therein, and personhood accrues in a number of stages between conception and birth (Alamri, 2011). This conceptualization of Surah al-Muʾminūn (Believers) can be traced to a central Qurʾānic passage that identifies the stages of embryonic and fetal development:

"And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay. Then We placed him as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging. Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah, the best of creators. ( 23:12-44)."

The concluding reference to “another creation” suggests that the biological material before this moment is not yet a full-fledged person and thus holds a different (i.e., lesser) religio-moral standing. Indeed, one interpretation could be that a viable fetus is different in kind and not just degree from its earlier, less-developed incarnation. Personhood clearly is not established at the moment of conception, nor does the Qurʾān provide a precise definition of the beginning of life (Haidar et al., 2015).

According to explanations given by the Prophet Muḥammad’s companion Ibn Masʿūd, the Prophet Muḥammad clarified that fetal development occurs in four stages between conception and childbirth (Katz, 2003; Table 1). Specifically, the Prophet Muḥammad explained that forty days is assigned to each stage (Bowen, 1997; Table 1). This has led to diverse perspectives of abortion law depending on the gestational stage of the fetus (Musallam, 1986). Even though some legal schools (madhāhib) permit abortion before 120 days (Table 1), abortion is never encouraged and only allowed on very serious grounds (Atighetchi, 2007; Shapiro, 2014). Furthermore, though scholars of the different legal schools concur that after 120 days (i.e., “ensoulment”) the fetus is considered a child and abortion is prohibited, all legal schools still permit abortion in order to save the life of the pregnant woman (al-Hibri, 2011; Nasir, 2011). Interestingly, the initial movement of the fetus occurs around 120 days and is also an important milestone in Christian and secular abortion bioethics (Katz, 2003).

Table 1 displays the diversity of positions across Sunni legal schools regarding the gestational stage of development (Shapiro, 2014). For example, Ḥanafīs, who comprised the majority of orthodox Muslims in later centuries, permit an abortion until the end of the fourth month of pregnancy. On the other hand, most Mālikīs prohibit abortion irrespective of gestational development, except under extreme circumstances (Musallam, 1986). Despite their differences, all schools concur that after 120 days (i.e., “ensoulment”) the fetus is considered a child and abortion is prohibited (Musallam, 1986). However, even then, all legal schools make an exception and permit abortion in order to save the life of the pregnant woman (al-Hibri, 2011; Nasir, 2011).

Though the Sunnah does not report a case where the Prophet Muḥammad directly discusses intentional abortion, it does record an occasion where Muḥammad makes a ruling regarding forced miscarriages (Shapiro, 2014). In a case where a woman killed her pregnant co-wife, the Prophet required the murderer’s kin to pay blood money (diyyah) for the co-wife and a financial penalty (ghurrah) for the unborn fetus (Katz, 2003). This case suggests the legal position of the fetus. As the value of the ghurrah is usually one-twentieth of the diyyah, this example indicates that the fetus has some legal protections but has not yet reached the status of full personhood (Katz, 2003, p. 28).

In addition to such legal resources, Islamic mystical teachings also reflect on the challenges abortion poses for individuals and communities. Sufism is an influential mystical aspect of Islam that provides spiritual and ethical guidance (Katz, 2003). Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 CE), one of the most recognized and influential Muslim mystics, explains that abortion falls short of murder (i.e., infanticide), but is on a “continuum of moral odium” (Katz, 2003, p. 43). Further, Sufism addresses “conditions of the heart” and holds that “the same act can have different ethical evaluations depending on the subjective spiritual state of the actor” (Katz, 2003, p. 41). Sufism thereby permits a degree of interpersonal relativism where an abortion may be acceptable depending on the particular circumstance and the intent (Shapiro, 2014).

Furthermore, other interrelated Islamic juristic principles that have been vibrant in both classical and contemporary ethical reasoning include the centrality of utility or public interest (istiṣlāḥ) and equity (istiḥsān) (Atighetchi, 2007; Hedayat, Shooshtarizadeh, and Raza, 2006). Other Islamic principles include protection against “distress and constriction” (ʿusr wa-ḥāraj), “averting probable harm” (dafʿal-ḍarar al-muḥtamal), and “necessity” (ḍarūrah) (Mustafa, 2014). These pivotal bioethical principles in Islam can be compared with the four basic prima facie “ethical principles” in Western bioethics: autonomy, beneficence, justice, and non-maleficence (Beauchamp and Childress, 2001; Gillon, 1994; Mustafa, 2014). Moreover, every act in Islam is classified into five juridico-ethical categories, the so-called aḥkām al-khamsah: 1, obligatory (farḍ); 2, recommended (mandūb); 3, permissible (mubāḥ); 4, reprehensible (makrūh); 5, forbidden (ḥarām) (Brown, 1999). Even when abortion is not ḥarām, it is often seen as makrūh (e.g. by Shāfiʿīs) (Bowen, 1997).

Brockopp (2008) stresses that in Islam there is also a tradition of acceptance of the family and the individual’s prerogative: “… God alone knows what is right and wrong in such cases. Nevertheless, the individual conscience is considered a better guide for action, since it is ultimately the individual who will have to answer to God on the Day of Judgment” (pp. 15–16). A tradition of understanding based on individual circumstances can also be observed through the actions of muftis (i.e., authoritative persons who render legal opinion) who may issue fatwas permitting abortion to individual couples despite prohibitive general rulings (Brockopp, 2008; Rispler-Chaim, 2003).

Table 1 Stages of Development

Stage Name Time period What Occurs Legality of Abortion (fiqh)
1 Nuṭfah (sperm) Conception to 40 days Semen and the ovum are gathered in the womb Hanafites: PermittedShafites: Majority permitHanbalites: Some permitMalikites: Prohibited
2 ʿAlaqah (blood clot) 40 days to 80 days Develops into a clinging blood-like clot Hanafites: PermittedShafites: Some permitHanbalites: Some permitMalikites: Prohibited
3 Muḍghah (embryo) 80 days to 120 days Clot forms into clump of flesh Hanafites: PermittedShafites: Some permitHanbalites: Some permitMalikites: Prohibited
4 KhalqanĀkhar (spirit) 120 days to birth Ensoulment occurs and the foetus possesses a spirit Prohibited (consensus across schools)

Contemporary Islamic Discussions of Abortion

Contemporary fatwas, the legal positions of Muslim countries, and transnational Islamic organizations have continued to interpret Islamic bioethics of abortion. Though neither legally binding nor enforced, fatwas (i.e., Muslim jurists’ legal perspectives on Islamic law as determined by scholars) yield significant authority in informing Shariʿah law (Nasir, 2011). These sources are particularly relevant as “few Muslims are versed in medieval legal texts … [and] customary practice assumes more force” (Bowen, 1997, p. 181). In particular, when published by important individuals (e.g., the rector of al-Azhar University) or issued in different settings (e.g., in Saudi Arabia) these rulings can be tremendously influential (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014; Brockopp, 2003) to communities deferring to those institutions or governing structures.

Table 2 outlines notable fatwas regarding abortion (Shapiro, 2014). Importantly, fatwas on the whole do not support abortion (Rispler-Chaim, 2003). Most muftis prohibit abortion, even in cases of rape or fetal impairment, due to concerns of a “‘mudslide’ in religious ethics” (Rispler-Chaim, 2003, p. 92). Nevertheless, there is widespread debate regarding what comprises reasonable grounds for an abortion. Based upon the aforementioned bioethical principles, some fatwas have exhibited leniency (particularly when the life or health of a pregnant woman is threatened or if the fetus is expected to be deformed), while others are more restrictive. These fatwas may hold particular relevance given the rapidly expanding populations in Muslim countries, constrained health budgets, and concerns regarding maternal health (Hedayat, Shooshtarizadeh, and Raza, 2006). The significance of lenient fatwas is greater still due to the ability of practicing Muslims to consider four equally valid schools within Sunni Islam alone (Brockopp, 2003).

Though legal consensus on abortion has not been reached, the Islamic Fiqh Council (IFC), an Islamic Sunni organization based in Saudi Arabia that comprises senior Islamic scholars of Muslim countries, have released rulings on abortion (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014). The IFC has ruled that before 120 days of pregnancy abortion is permissible if the fetus has serious anomalies (as judged by two medical experts) (Al-Matary and Ali 2014). Furthermore, after 120 days, abortion is forbidden unless the continuation of the pregnancy puts the mother’s life at risk (as judged by two medical experts) (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014). Moreover, contemporary Shiʿi ayatollahs have mostly ruled that abortion is permitted up to day 120 after conception on grounds of fetal or maternal conditions that bring extreme difficulties for the mother or family (Hedayat, Shooshtarizadeh, and Raza, 2006; Shapiro 2014).

Furthermore, contemporary discussions of abortion in Islam have been debated on the national stage and revealed through national abortion policy in Muslim-majority countries. As mentioned above, many Muslim countries have a prohibitive stance on abortion and only allow this practice if the life of a pregnant woman is threatened (Shapiro, 2014). However, in recent years, some Muslim-majority countries have liberalized their abortion policy (Haidar et al., 2015). For example, a number of countries have passed laws that allow abortion due to: severe fetal conditions, rape/incest, or physical and mental health reasons. Nevertheless, often the timing of the abortion is stipulated and an abortion must be performed before 120 days (Haidar et al., 2015). Notably, Tunisia has the most liberalized abortion laws, allowing abortion “upon request” within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and providing abortion services through the public health care system (United Nations DESA Population Division, 2002; Hessini, 2008; Shapiro, 2014). Indeed, Tunisia was the first Muslim, African, and Arab country to liberalize its abortion law in 1973, and did so before France, Germany, or the USA (Shapiro, 2014).

In addition, positions of transnational Islamic organizations are another gauge of contemporary Islamic positions on abortion (Shapiro, 2014). Despite conservative abortion laws in most Muslim-majority countries, a more lenient perspective of Islam’s position has been offered internationally (Shapiro, 2014). For example, in the Rabat Conference on Islam and Family Planning (1974), Indonesian scholar Ahmad Gazali listed conditions that justify an abortion (e.g., rape, incest, psychological state of mother, and fetal impairment) (Shapiro, 2014). Moreover, at the influential United Nations International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994, “an extremely important landmark in raising global consciousness with regard to a number of issues that are central to the lives of women,” Muslim-majority countries dissented from their originally announced alliance between Muslims and Roman Catholics in opposing abortion (Hassan, 2001, p. 64). At the ICPD, the Muslim delegation moved away from their initial position of total condemnation of abortion (similar to that of the Vatican) to a more circumstantial position (Bowen, 1997). Though twelve Muslim-majority countries expressed reservations toward the original wording of Chapter VII of the Programme of Action (i.e., Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Health) (Bowen, 1997), they eventually agreed that though abortion should not be used as a method of family planning, all governments must “deal with the health impact of unsafe abortion” (United Nations Department of Public Information, 1994). Through discussions at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994 the position of many Muslim-majority countries became clearer: although abortion as a method of family planning is discouraged, abortion is permitted in “well-defined situations” (Bowen, 1997, p. 178).

Table 2 Fatwas on Abortion

Ground for Abortion Summary of Prominent Rulings (Fatwas) General Conclusions
Mother’s Life The principle whereby “necessity knows no law” is applied. Muslims universally agree that the primary concern is for the life of the mother and her welfare takes precedence. Abortion is widely permitted.
Mother’s Physical and Mental Health The principle of “necessity” is applied. Ibrāhīm Ḥaqqī, a Syrian physician, explains that physical health issues are justifiable reasons for an abortion. For example, fiqh texts of reasons that merit abortion include poor health of the mother, such as a weak bladder, a risk of difficult labour requiring a caesarean section, or a disease or malfunctioning of the uterus (Bowen, 1997). Abortion is generally permitted.
Foetal Impairment The Grand Mufti Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei permits abortion in the first trimester in situations of genetic disorder (Hessini, 2008). A similar perspective is voiced by Sheikh Naṣr Farīd Wāṣil, the mufti of Egypt (Rispler-Chaim, 2003). Abū al-Faḍl Muḥsin Ibrāhīm and ʿAbd al-Qadīm Ẓallūm also allow abortion of deformed foetuses if seventeen weeks of pregnancy have not passed (Asman, 2004). More strictly, mufti al-Qaraḍāwī allows abortion on this ground only within the first 40 days. Jād al-Ḥaqq, the late Sheikh al-Azhar, advises against abortion of deformed foetuses but considers it justifiable in cases of severe deformities and genetic diseases (Asman, 2004). Abortion is often permitted, within strict gestational limits.
Rape or Incest Casuistry (i.e., case law) is clear on this ground and significant political events have led to occasionally lenient rulings. In Kuwait in 1982, permission was given to abort impaired foetuses up to three months into the pregnancy (Rispler-Chaim, 2003, p. 84). However, after the rape of Kuwaiti women by Iraqi soldiers (during the first Gulf War), the majority of muftis argued that abortion is not permitted in circumstances of rape (Asman, 2004). Those who permit abortion on the grounds of rape only do so before 120 days (Asman 2004). In 1998, the Algerian Islamic Supreme Council issued a fatwa allowing abortion in cases of rape explaining that religious extremists often use rape as a weapon of war (Chelala, 1998). Similarly, the Egyptian Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar (i.e., the highest Islamic council in Egypt), Muḥammed Sayyid Ṭanṭāwī, issued a fatwa in 1998 that allowed abortion to women who had been raped even after 120 days (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014). In 1999, ʿIkrimah Ṣabrī, chief mufti of the Palestinian Authority also permitted Muslim women who were raped in Kosovo to take abortifacient medicine to prevent pregnancy. Abortion is disputed, but increasingly permitted within the gestational limit. Incest is far less discussed than rape.
Social and Economic Reasons There is substantial concern that the Qurʾān’s prohibition of infanticides out of fear of financial burden is violated under these grounds (Bowen, 2003). However, as discussed above, foetuses are not always interpreted to be children. Furthermore, the Sunnah allows termination of the foetus if the mother is still breast-feeding (within the requisite two-year nursing period), as early and medieval Islamic medical wisdom held that pregnancy could detract from nutrients of a nursing child, and the living child has priority over the foetus (Brockopp, 2003). Also, an excessively youthful mother (younger than fifteen) is sometimes listed as a justifiable reason for abortion (Bowen, 1997). Historically, abortion was also justified to prevent the birth of a child to a pregnant slave so as to avoid the obligation of the owner to free the slave (Bowen, 2003). Nevertheless, abortions for social and economic reasons are explicitly seen to violate Qurʾānic principles, and are therefore widely prohibited (Asman, 2004). A notable exception is Sheikh Ahmed Harayd who allows abortion in cases where the family is unable to hire a wet-nurse to feed the unborn foetus. Widely prohibited with few exceptions.

Assessment of Pertinent Bioethical Issues

As this article has discussed, the central legitimizing Islamic texts (i.e., the Qurʾān and the Sunnah) do not explicitly address intentional abortion but instead focus on infanticide (Asman, 2004). Although these verses on children are often interpreted as applying to potential children (i.e., fetuses), it is clear from the Sunnah that there is a distinction between the deaths of already born children and the deaths of fetuses. The greatest leniency for abortion exists when the abortion is one of “necessity” (i.e., if the life of the pregnant woman is threatened) and sought within 120 days (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014; Bowen, 2003; Hedayat et al., 2006; Katz 2003). In addition, appealing to bioethical principles (discussed above) may allow for greater flexibility depending upon personal circumstances and intent. These principles have therefore been considered “the open frontier of Islamic ethics” (Brown, 1999, p.192). Furthermore, although contemporary fatwas, national abortion policies in Muslim countries, and transnational commitments have been predominantly restrictive, some fatwas and governments have demonstrated leniency.

The discussion of abortion in Islam highlights a number of pertinent bioethical debates. Islamic tradition extends the right to absolute inviolability (dhimmah ṣāliḥah) to distinct persons (nafs). Since a fetus (janīn) in its earliest stages of development can grow only within a woman’s womb and thus cannot exist on its own, it is not afforded absolute inviolability. This raises many questions regarding the termination of pregnancies, such as in regard to timing, penalty, permissibility, reason, and authority to decide.

That termination is even debatable in Islamic bioethics is unsurprising. Islam, it should be recalled, emerged in a religio-cultural context alongside many other traditions that held that fetuses, while potential humans, were not full-fledged moral or religious entities. As noted above, Islam shares with other traditions a dualistic view of human nature. Human flesh becomes a person only once a soul presents itself therein, and this takes some time after conception and even after implantation. How much time, was—and remains—an open religio-moral and philosophical question for Muslim jurists.

The Qurʾān extends this theory of ontogenesis, of when humans become persons, in its teachings about embryonic development. Personhood is established not at the moment of conception—which itself is a process, however brief—but only at some later point during gestation or, for some jurists, after parturition itself. Insofar as ensoulment and its corollary attainment of full personhood occurs at some point during or after fetal development, it is thus possible to consider the termination of a pregnancy as something distinct from homicide. Early-term abortion is not murder nor even tantamount to murder: no living human must die because a human embryo has been aborted. This does not mean that purposeful causation of a miscarriage carries no penalty. On the contrary, it usually calls for pecuniary penalties (as did Biblical Judaism; see Exodus 21:22–25), and in some instances lengthy fasting by the aggressor. The determination of these tortious penalties differs throughout the Islamic world, and it also depends upon the fetus’s development, whether it was aborted before or after supposed ensoulment. In addition to penalties, these timing questions implicate funereal rites for the aborted and its resurrection on the Day of Judgment (al-qiyāmah).

Still, tortious penalties need not arise in every instance of an aborted pregnancy. Some jurists and jurisdictions consider certain abortions permissible. Such permission does not mean, of course, that the procedure is morally commendable. Indeed, Islam—like its cousin monotheistic traditions, Judaism and Christianity—is ardently pro-natalist: it encourages procreation, especially within the confines of religiously sanctioned relationships. For this reason, abortion is thus understood as a possible, though not ideal, way for a pregnancy to end; the most acceptable and desired end of a pregnancy is with a live birth.

Abortions are justified on various grounds. Most unquestioned is the termination of a pregnancy that undoubtedly endangers the woman and the abortion of which is the sole means of saving her life. A woman’s psychological trauma due to rape or incest is another valid reason for an abortion for some jurists. Infidelity or economic reasons for termination, by contrast, are not sufficient causes for an abortion for most muftis and decision makers. Another compelling reason for some jurists is the presence of a child not yet weaned; an early-term abortion may be permitted lest the mother’s breast milk dry up and impoverish the existing child. Concerns about the viability or overall health of the fetus have not generally been sufficient to justify abortions until recently; this is because the fetus is “concealed” (istajann) in the womb and such information was unknown and unknowable to early Muslim jurists. This raises serious questions about the advisability of genetic testing of fetuses. Should testing fetuses to diagnose genetic problems be done if the pregnancy has already passed permissible time thresholds for an abortion? If 120 days is a dominant cut-off date beyond which permission for an abortion cannot be granted based on the genetic or morphological health of a fetus, Muslim women should be encouraged to see obstetricians early in their pregnancies (Al-Matary and Ali, 2014).

A question subsequent to the issue of abortion is the permissibility of using embryonic stem cells for research. Rahman et al. (2014) find that fetal stem cells may be used as long as the age and origin of the fetus is known. According to them, if the fetus was spontaneously miscarried and would have been disposed of anyway, then there is no harm in using the fetal stem cells.

Even though Muslim men are encouraged to procreate, Muslim women may exercise some control of when they become impregnated. Many juridical schools permit women to use contraception as long as it is with their husband’s consent and causes no bodily harm. Men, too, may prevent conception by practicing coitus interruptus (ʿazl), but may do so only with the spouse’s permission. Permanent contraception for either men or women is forbidden, however (Sachedina, 2009). On the whole, abortion as a technique of birth control is viewed as indefensible (Bagheri and Afshar, 2011).

For all these reasons, several major issues arise in contemporary Islamic bioethical deliberations on abortion. The first pertains to the status of the embryo/fetus. Islam’s dualistic conceptualization of human nature, coupled with its ambiguity about the precise beginning of human life, complicate the status of the embryo/fetus. Whereas religious sources and scholars may be certain that human life and moral status begin at a particular moment, scientific studies of embryology make it difficult to provide a clear, unambiguous biological marker for the same. This raises serious questions about reasoning and argumentation in Islamic bioethics, about the use and deference to authority and the role of evidence. When they diverge or even contravene each other, which factors should trump and guide practice?

Another issue at stake in this discussion is the mother’s role in the decision-making process. While Islamic jurisprudence resists framing abortion in terms of maternal autonomy or rights, or between the rights of a fetus and the rights of a pregnant woman (Bagheri and Afshar, 2011), it nonetheless is imbricated in these contemporary discourses on abortion. This is increasingly complicated in today’s global conversation in which women’s access to health care—including abortion—is in some cases viewed as a basic human right, a right all countries may be expected to protect and even provide. Nevertheless, abortion on the basis of women’s health is far more compatible with Islamic bioethics than on the basis of women’s rights (Hildebrandt, 2015).

There is arguably no singular Muslim position toward the bioethical dilemma of abortion, and “Islam does not speak with one voice on the question of abortion” (Brockopp, 2003, p. 24). For example, Bagheri and Afshar (2011) discuss a case study of a couple seeking to abort a fifteen-week-old fetus (due to fetal impairment) in five Muslim countries. They conclude that although abortion is generally forbidden, there is substantial diversity in the five countries’ rulings, despite all decisions being rooted in the Islamic tradition. The flexibility of Islamic law is a cornerstone of the Islamic legal tradition and because Islam was revealed “to all people for all times” its laws therefore need to be capable of adaptability (al-Hibri, 2011). The cultivation of variation in the Islamic tradition dates from the pre-modern Islamic world (Reinhart, 2003). Nevertheless, pluralism in Islamic jurisprudence should be treated cautiously, and multiple religiously informed legal viewpoints within Islam should not be condensed and equated to a stance of ethical relativism.


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