Abortion in the Islamic world (Rava Special Report)

Abortion in the Islamic world (Rava Special Report)


Of the 5 countries in the world where abortion is completely prohibited – El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Malta and the Vatican – none is Muslim majority. That does not mean that it is not a taboo in some Islamic societies.

In general, Muslims do not agree with abortion and consider it haraam (forbidden), but many of them – including lawyers, experts in Islam and doctors – agree that it should be allowed in certain cases. In fact, in all Muslim countries it is legal when the life of the mother is at risk.

But to speak of Islamic world is to speak of diversity, because, although they share the same religion, Muslim majority countries do not govern in the same way.

Islam is the majority religion in dozens of countries located in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and it is the faith practiced by millions of people in other parts of the world. It is estimated that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world .

In some countries, the legal system is based exclusively on sharia law (Muslim law); in others, Muslim legislation is combined with civil law and, in others, the legal system has its foundations not in religion but in secularism.

At Rava we analyze exactly what Islam says about abortion and how it is applied in some Muslim countries.

Young man with the Koran
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Image caption In the Quran there is a verse that says: “Do not kill your children for fear of poverty.”

What the Quran says

The Quran , the sacred book of Islam, and the hadith, which is the set of traditions and approaches attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, are the texts that guide the life of all Muslims.

Sami El Mushtawi, head of the culture department of the Islamic Cultural Center of Madrid, explained to BBC  that there is no explicit paragraph in the Quran that talks about abortion .

However, there is a verse that states:

“Do not kill your children for fear of poverty, we are the ones who provide them, and you too, killing them is a great sin”.

“What this verse means is that you can not go to an abortion because you fear that you will not be able to support your children or give them a decent life,” says El Mushtawi.

However, all Muslim law schools accept that abortion must be practiced if continuing the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother.

“(Yes) trusted doctors, honestly, sensibly, accredit that situation, in that case the life of the mother is more important since it is already a real life,” the specialist told BBC. “The life of the mother must be saved,” he says.

Muslim women praying
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Image caption Islam is one of the religions that has the most followers.


The BBC unit dedicated to religion and ethics explains that Islam allows that exception because there is a perception that it is “a lesser evil” within a situation that presents two evils and there is a general principle in sharia law of choosing the lesser between two evils.

And it is considered like this because:

  • The mother is the “originator” of the fetus
  • The life of the mother is already well established
  • The mother has duties and responsibilities
  • The mother is part of a family
  • Letting the mother die means, in most cases, killing the fetus
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Image caption In the wide range of Muslim countries, there is a diversity of forms of government.

The first 120 days

“There is a more open position to abortion in the first phases.” The fundamental question discussed by experts, jurists and Muslim theologians is: when is a group of cells becoming a human being? BBC Delfina Serrano, researcher at the Department of Jewish and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Languages ​​and Cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East of Spain.

According to El Mushtawi, the Muslim faith believes that after 120 days the human being is formed .

“After 120 days, God sends him the angel to breathe into his soul or spirit (the embryo),” explains the specialist. “From the very conception of the human being to his death, once the spirit or soul is breathed into the fetus, life begins for us, the Muslims.”

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Image caption The Muslim faith believes that after 120 days the human being is formed.


There are some sages who maintain that up to 120 days, pregnancy can be interrupted if the life of the mother is at risk, “he adds.

But if after that period, the life of the mother is in danger, the abortion should be allowed, according to the unit of Religion and Ethics of the BBC.

Thus, some schools of Islamic thought allow abortion in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy , but others, more conservative, only accept it in the first 7 weeks.

That in regard to the risk to the life of the mother. But what happens if it is the baby’s life that is in danger? Again we find a great diversity.

According to the division Religion and Ethics of the BBC, if it is confirmed that in the early stage of a pregnancy the fetus suffers from a defect that can not be treated and that will cause great suffering, a group of Muslim scholars would say that abortion should be allowed, as long as the pregnancy has not reached 120 days.

A slightly more liberal opinion indicates that an abortion within the first 120 days would be allowed if the child were born with such a physical and mental deformity that he would be deprived of leading a normal life. The opinion of at least two medical experts is essential in that case.

Other experts disagree and believe that abortion should not be allowed in these cases.

Pregnant woman
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Image caption The state of health of the fetus is taken into account by some scholars of Islam to pronounce in favor of an abortion.


In Iran, Ayatollah Ali Jameni issued a fatwa in which he allowed abortion when fetuses less than 10 weeks old had thalassemia , a genetic disorder of the blood.

A fatwa is a pronouncement issued by scholars of Islamic law that may have legal implications and serves as a guide for Muslims.

In the Islamic world, unlike Catholicism, there is no central figure, like the Pope, who leads the religion. Hence, the importance of experts in Islam explaining the Qur’an and the prophetic hadith in the framework of the needs of society.

Also in that country, in 1990, the great Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei issued another fatwa in which the termination of the pregnancy was allowed in the first three months if the fetus presented a serious malformation, caused by a severe, untreatable condition, and, provided that when, a committee of expert and reliable doctors will corroborate it and the parents will request the measure.

Rape, incest and adultery

“Although Islamic jurisprudence does not encourage abortion, there is no biblical prohibition.”

These are the words of social psychologist Gilla Shapiro, author of a study on legislation on abortion in Muslim majority countries published in 2014 in the journal Health Policy and Planning .

A woman in a scan
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Image caption Saving the mother in case her life is in danger is fundamental in Islam.


Shapiro explains that although there is a general consensus in the Muslim world of allowing abortion when a woman’s life is at risk, and when the first 120 days of pregnancy have not elapsed, “there is a remarkable heterogeneity in relation to other circumstances (for example: the preservation of physical or mental health (of the mother), disability of the fetus, rape or economic or social reasons) and the subsequent gestational development of the fetus “.

Some experts of Islam state that abortion should be allowed when the mother is the victim of rape or incest and, if it is done, it must be within the first 120 days of pregnancy.

Others say that for these reasons it should never be allowed, because life is sacred .

In the Balkan conflict it was reported that after a group of women were raped by Serbian soldiers, a fatwa was issued so that they could have an abortion, but they were urged to do so before 120 days of gestation.

In Algeria, a similar fatwa was issued in 1998 for the cases of women who were abducted and attacked by Islamic extremists.

In 2015, King Mohamed VI of Morocco expanded the causes for women to undergo an abortion. In addition to saving the life of the mother, authorized to be practiced in cases of malformation of the fetus and rape or incest.

These are examples that demonstrate the flexibility of Islamic law in certain circumstances.

Woman with the Islamic veil
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Image caption As in the West, abortion is seen as taboo by many Muslims.


However, Islam does not allow abortion when the pregnancy is the result of adultery.

Justification for an abortion in countries of the Middle East and North Africa
Risk to the life of women
Risk to the physical health of women
Saudi Arabia
Risk to the physical and mental health of women
Disability of the fetus
All the reasons within the first quarter
Source: “Annual Review of Population Laws” (2004) Harvard University *
* Quoted by Leila Hessini: “Abortion and Islam: Policies and Practice in the Middle East and North Africa, Reproductive Health Matters” (2007)

Tunisia, the first

In 1965, Tunisia became the first Muslim country to liberalize its abortion law, even before some European nations such as France and Germany .

Sarah Raifman, Selma Hajri, Diana Foster and Caitlin Gerdts are the authors of the research published in 2015: “This Is Real Misery”: Experiences of Women Denied Legal Abortion in Tunisia “(” This is a real misery: experiences of women in that they were denied legal abortion in Tunisia “).

Although in their study they found cases of Tunisians that the health system denied them, for different reasons, to perform an abortion, they recognize that historically Tunisia was for a long time “at the forefront of legal access to safe reproductive health services and affordable for women. “

“Although Muslims make up more than 99% of the population, the government has endorsed an exclusively secular position on reproductive health services, ” they say.

A woman reading the Koran
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Image caption The Quran is the sacred book of Islam that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.


In 1965, the North African nation allowed legal abortion to be given to women who “had more than five children, who were within the first trimester of pregnancy and who had the approval of their husbands.”

Further legislative liberalization occurred in 1973, when the government legalized abortion “for any woman in the first trimester regardless of husband’s approval.”

Since 1974, abortion is legal, in the first trimester, upon request of a doctor. After that period, an abortion is allowed in authorized health centers when there is an urgent need to “preserve the physical and mental health of the mother or in case of a fetal abnormality” and it is essential to have evidence from the treating doctors.

“Since 2001, the use of medical abortion has become increasingly common in Tunisia,” the researchers point out.

However, as the authors put it, outside of the medical context, “abortion is a taboo and many women lack adequate information about the availability of legal services.”

Falling underground

If in Tunisia, the country that in the Islamic world has shown greater openness to abortion, this procedure is a taboo, the situation in other Muslim countries, in which sharia law is implemented , is much more complex.

Afghan women walking
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Image caption In some regions of Afghanistan that are governed by the Taliban, sharia law is applied in a radical way.


In many communities, such as in villages in Afghanistan , teenagers and women who become pregnant without being married are taken by their own mothers and relatives to undergo interventions that can be dangerous, because they are performed by people who lack the preparation medical to deal with complications.

Others go alone and voluntarily to midwives with experience in these procedures to end their pregnancies.

In an article published in 2014 in Deutsche Welle , the journalist Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi investigated how many women in that country resort to illegal abortion to avoid not only having many children, but social ostracism.

“Abortion is the only contraceptive method they know,” said Adela Mubasher, of the World Health Organization, in that article.

A “criminal act”

As in Afghanistan, the laws in Iran are largely based on Islam.

In that country only two exceptions are contemplated for an abortion to be practiced: when the life of the mother is in danger and when the fetus presents serious problems and it is established that it is practiced in the first four months of pregnancy, after the confirmation of the medical authorities.

Apart from these exceptions, Iranian laws define abortion as a criminal act, even in cases of rape .

Young people walk in Iran
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Image caption In Iran, purchasing power plays a role when it comes to accessing clandestine abortion services.


“There are no official or reliable statistics on the number of abortions in the country, so we do not have exact figures, but it is believed that approximately 300,000 abortions are performed in Iran annually , only around 3% are legal,” he says. BBC World Shabnam Shabani, journalist of the Persian service of the BBC.

In addition, people involved in abortion, not only women, can face serious consequences, in some cases even prison sentences .

The same happens in Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Bangladesh, Indonesia, among other countries.

In Egypt, as in Iran, the law only allows an abortion when a woman’s life is in danger.

Therefore, many women who do not want to continue with pregnancy, because it was an unplanned pregnancy, for example, go to clinics that perform the procedure clandestinely and must pay large amounts of money.

“Abortion is seen as a stigma in Egypt,” explains Mohammed Abdul Qader, assistant editor of the Arab service of the BBC.

“Many women do not have the emotional support they need in these circumstances, they do it secretly from their own families because if they know they did it, their image will be affected.”


Middle East and North Africa between 1995-2000

country Numbers of abortions Maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions
Algeria 718,670 1.076
Bahrain 25.754 16
Egypt 2,079,216 2.542
Iran 2,590,681 5,697
Iraq 893,285 908
Jordan 196,792 161
Kuwait 70,169 52
Lebanon 177.298 85
Libya 117,050 190
Mauritania 116,196 801
Morocco 699,692 1.084
Oman 80,642 105
Palestinian Territories 98,135 141
Qatar 20,272 14
Saudi Arabia 699,405 927
Sudan 702,248 1,893
Syria 653,965 580
Tunisia 118.102 256
Turkey 2,301,966 1.536
United Arab Emirates 78,770 49
Yemen 606,339 842

Source: “Promises to Keep: The Toll of Unintended Pregnancy on Women in the Developing World” (“Promises to maintain: the cost of unwanted pregnancy in women in the developing world”), from the Global Health Council (2002) cited by Leila Hessini: “Abortion and Islam: Policies and Practice in the Middle East and North Africa, Reproductive Health Matters” (2007) .


The purchasing power, key

When a clandestine procedure is used, purchasing power can be a matter of life or death: women of the upper and middle classes will have access to an illegal but safer procedure, after paying a large sum of money.

Others resort abroad.

“They go to private clinics that do it for money clandestinely and others even go to neighboring countries to undergo the procedure,” BBC World Shodiyor Sayf, a journalist at the BBC’s Uzbek service, tells us when he talks about that reality in his country.

Uzbekistan , where voluntary abortion is illegal, is a country whose population is mostly Muslim, but its constitution is not a reflection of Islam but rather of communism.

That’s partly because that Central Asian country still has an affinity with its Soviet past .

Mosque in Uzbekistan
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Image caption Although a Muslim majority, Uzbekistan maintains its secular constitution.


In contrast, the situation is a challenge for women with fewer resources in many Muslim countries.

“These women have no choice but to resort to traditional methods, which can be extremely dangerous , such as the intake of strange pills that can be toxic,” Shabani said of Iran.

As a consequence, women from poor families die from illegal abortions in many regions of the Islamic world.

In Iran, as the journalist explains, there are no statistics on those deathsbecause the government has zero tolerance for voluntary abortions.

And that is not a reality that subscribes to that Islamic republic, but to many countries of the Muslim world.

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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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