Current Status of Abortion: Categories
ABORTION IS THE termination of pregnancy by removing a fetus or embryo from the womb, before it can survive on its own. An abortion which occurs spontaneously is known as a “miscarriage.” An abortion may be initiated and hence called “induced abortion.” Currently, the term “abortion” is commonly restricted to mean induced abortions.
A similar procedure—after the fetus can possibly survive on its own—is called a “late termination of pregnancy.” Modern methods use medication or surgery for abortions. Every year, unsafe abortions cause 47,000 deaths and account for 5 million hospital admissions. Worldwide, about 44 million abortions occur yearly, with a little under half done unsafely (performed under unsafe conditions).
Abortion rates have changed little between 2003 and 2008: the rates at which people abort has decreased in correlation to better education about family planning and birth control. As of 2008, 40% of the world’s women have engaged in abortion.
In ancient times, abortions were done using herbal medicines, sharp tools, physical force, or through other traditional methods.
Abortion laws differ from one place to another. In some areas, abortion is legal only in special cases such as rape, problems with the fetus, poverty, risk to a woman’s health, or incest. In many places, there is much debate over the moral, ethical, and legal issues of abortion:
- Those who are against abortion largely claim that an embryo or fetus has the status of a human being with a right to life; they thus typically compare abortion to murder.
- Supporters point to a woman’s right to decide in matters affecting her own body and pertaining to individual human rights in general.
Intentional or Unintentional
As is widely known, an end to pregnancy may be induced, that is, intentionally brought about. Approximately 205 million pregnancies occur each year globally. Over a third are unintended and about a fifth end in induced abortion. Most abortions follow on from unintended pregnancies. In the United Kingdom, a mere 1 to 2% of abortions are done due to discovered genetic problems in the fetus.
Then too, abortion may be spontaneous, that is, unintentional.
- Spontaneous abortion, also known as “miscarriage,” is the unintentional expulsion of an embryo or fetus before the 24th week of gestation.
- A pregnancy that ends before 37 weeks of gestation resulting in a live-born infant is known as a “premature birth” or a “preterm birth.”
- When a fetus dies in utero after initial viability, or during delivery, it is usually termed “stillborn.” Premature births and stillbirths are generally not considered to be miscarriages although usage of these terms can sometimes overlap.
Only 30% to 50% of conceptions progress past the first trimester. The vast majority of those that do not progress are lost before the woman is aware of the conception, and many pregnancies are lost before medical practitioners can detect an embryo.
Between 15% and 30% of known pregnancies end in clinically apparent miscarriage, depending upon the age and health of the pregnant woman.
Relatively 80% of these spontaneous abortions happen in the first trimester.
Muslims’ views on abortion are shaped by the Hadith as well as by the opinions of legal and religious scholars and commentators. In Islam, the fetus is believed to become a living soul after four months of gestation, and abortion after that point is generally viewed as impermissible.
Many Islamic thinkers recognize exceptions to this rule for certain circumstances; indeed, Azizah Y. al-Hibri in her 1993 presentation (at the International Conference on Population and Development at the United Nations) titled “Family Planning and Islamic Jurisprudence, ” notes that
…the majority of Muslim scholars permit abortion, although they differ on the stage of fetal development beyond which it becomes prohibited.
As a matter of fact, abortion has no legal standing in Islam except as a special consideration—meaning that terminating a pregnancy is forbidden except in limited circumstances. Among Muslims, the permissibility of abortion depends on factors such as time and extenuating circumstances.
Before Four Months of Gestation
Sayid Sabiq, author of Fiqh al-Sunnah in an article, “Abortion is a Silent Crime,” has summarized the views of classical jurists in this regard in the following words:
- “Abortion is not allowed after four months have passed since conception, because at that time it is akin to taking a life, an act that entails penalty in this world and in the Hereafter.
- As regards the matter of abortion before this period elapses, it is considered allowed if necessary. However, in the absence of a reasonable excuse, it is detestable.The author of Subul Al-Salam has written: “A woman’s treatment for aborting a pregnancy before the spirit has been blown into it is a matter upon which scholars have varied on account of difference of opinion on the matter of ʿAzl (meaning: measures to hinder conception). Those who allow ʿAzl consider abortion as allowable and vice versa.” The same ruling should be applicable for women deciding on sterilization.
- Imam Ghazali opines:
Induced abortion is a sin after conception.
He further says:
The sin thus incurred can be of degrees. When the sperm enters the ovaries, mixes with the ovum and acquires potential of life, its removal would be a sin. Aborting it after it grows into a germ or a leech [-like mass] would be a graver sin and the graveness of the sin increases very much if one does so after the stage when the spirit is blown into the fetus and it acquires human form and faculties.
Threat to the Woman’s Life
On the issue of the life of the woman, Muslims universally agree that the woman’s life takes precedence over the life of the fetus. This is because the woman is considered the “original source of life,” while the fetus is only “potential” life.
Muslim jurists agree that abortion is allowed based on the principle that “the greater evil [the woman’s death] should be warded off by the lesser evil [abortion].”
In these cases, the physician is considered a better judge than the scholar.
Most Muslim scholars hold that the child of rape is a legitimate child and thus it would be sinful to kill this child. Scholars sanction its abortion only if the fetus is less than four months old, or if it endangers the life of its mother.
Muslim scholars were urged to make exceptions in the 1990s following rapes of Kuwaiti women by Iraqi soldiers (in 1991) and the rape of Bosnian women by Serb soldiers.
In 1991, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, Ekrima Sabri took a different position than mainstream Muslim scholars. He ruled that Muslim women raped by their enemies during the Kosovo War could take abortifacient medicine, because otherwise, the children born to those women might one day fight against Muslims.
Some Muslim scholars also argue that abortion is permitted if the fetus is abnormal in a way that would make its care exceptionally difficult for the parents (e.g. physical deformities, mental retardation, etc.).