When I first visited an abortion clinic as a medical student two years ago, I encountered stereotypical anti-abortion activism outside the clinic: enlarged, graphic images of bloody fetuses and severed limbs, flagrant yelling and condemnation, and Christian faith symbols on display. I secretly prayed that the headscarf on my head would force the protestors to revise their pro-faith-means-anti-choice stance, but I knew better.
I had become accustomed to the conflation of religion with strict opposition to abortion even in Muslim circles, where my Muslim peers would cringe at my enthusiasm to defend a woman’s right to choose, let alone my attention-grabbing “I love reproductive rights!” stickers and “My uterus, my choice” buttons. When it came time to celebrating the hallmark Roe v. Wade decision every year, I found myself one of a handful Muslim men or women.
However, just as there is no monolithic “Islamic” stance on most issues, there is also no universal stance on abortion in Islam. In fact, while Qur’anic verses stress the sanctity of human life and condemnation of infanticide, abortion is not even explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Muslim perspectives on abortion are instead derived from Prophetic tradition. The most oft-quoted hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, is one stating that ensoulment (the moment at which a fetus gains a soul) does not occur until four months (120 days) after conception. The most popular viewpoint permits abortion before ensoulment — good news for Muslims advocating for a woman’s right to choose in the United States, where 88 percent of women have their abortion in the first 3 months of pregnancy.
While there are more stringent Islamic scholars who state that abortion is permissible only in the first 40 days, there is a general understanding in classical Islamic law that a fetus is not a legal person. For example, a fetus cannot inherit wealth, but if it lives outside the womb, even for a second, it can inherit. State anti-abortion personhood amendments, attempting to define a legal person at conception, would be rejected outright.
Muslim scholars also differ about what extenuating circumstances warrant abortion. The general consensus is that abortions are permitted if the health of the mother is at risk. Rape can be included in this provision. Some scholars go even further, arguing abortions are also permissible after the first trimester when the psychological or economic interests of the mother are endangered. Take Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a popular Iranian scholar, who in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, stated: “But Islam is also a religion of compassion, and if there are serious problems, God sometimes doesn’t require his creatures to practice his law. So under some conditions–such as parents’ poverty or overpopulation–then abortion is allowed.”
There is also the late Grand Ayatollah Hassan Fadhlallah, a very prominent Lebanese scholar, who ruled that abortions are permitted for a woman if “continuing the pregnancy puts her life in danger, or brings her a big shame that is usually unbearable,” such as pregnancies born in adulterous or secret relationships. This leniency, by him and other scholars, is often justified on the basis of the Qur’anic rule: “and [God] has imposed no difficulties on you in religion” (Verse 22:78). Ayatollah Fadhlallah also unequivocally stated that abortion should be a decision made by the woman only: “The father has nothing to do with this issue whether that causes him damage or not…the process of permissibility and prohibition is related to the woman only.” (Mind you, he is not some fringe scholar, but rather a spiritual guide to millions of Shia Muslims and an advocate for the disenfranchised. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands of followers and declared a national day of mourning by Lebanon.)
These viewpoints are not unlike those expressed in other religious traditions — Jewish or Christian, equally varied and diverse as Islam — whose support for a woman’s right to choose is in contrast to anti-choice activists who mistakenly paint a universal “religion says” banner where abortion is deemed murder and impermissible. The Muslim faith tradition, like other religious traditions, is understanding of the difficult situations that women find themselves in, including ones where ending their pregnancy is the best of all possible options. There is also utmost respect for a woman’s right to assert control over her body.
This year, on the 40th anniversary of the monumental Roe v. Wade decision, and after a crescendo of anti-abortion opposition witnessed in the past year (in 2012 alone, 43 abortion restrictions were enacted in 19 states), I celebrate Roe v. Wade proudly as a Muslim woman. I deeply hope that more Muslim women and men will do the same with me, refusing to accept blanket, unfounded statements about religious or Islamic opposition to abortion.
I also hope that the celebration of this day will translate to advocacy around this issue in faith communities, where criminalizing obtaining or providing an abortion can be seen as a violation of religious liberty, in addition to violations of the right to privacy and bodily autonomy. Just as there are religious leaders in our communities that understand the complexity and nuances involved in such a decision, we must understand too. It is as the Eastern Orthodox author Frederica Mathews-Green aptly put it: “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
Altaf Saadi is a fourth year medical student at Harvard Medical School, where she has promoted cultural, religious, and ethical awareness in medical practice. In 2012, she received the Harvard Medical School Dean’s Community Service Award for providing counseling services for survivors of sexual assault with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. She has also counseled young women of color around issues of sexual and reproductive health with Advocates for Youth. This piece was originally published on The Huffington Post.
Photo credit: Debra Sweet