By: Bugu Sıla Evren

Religion may play a significant role in people’s decision to go through a safe abortion, whether by choice or obligation (illegality of abortion in some Muslim countries). In this article, we dive into Islamic sources to understand Islam’s positioning towards abortion better.

Quran and Abortion

To begin with, the primary source of information in Islam is Quran. It serves as the basis of all inquiries. However, Quran does not directly mention abortion. Another source of Islamic knowledge is Sunnah, practices, and rulings of the Prophet Muhammad, which is transmitted through oral tradition (Hadith). There is no direct cite or prohibition on abortion in Sunnah either (Shameen, 2013). As such, there are multiple interpretations regarding the acceptability of abortion.

Different interpretations regarding abortion and ensoulment of the fetus

Instead of abortion, these sources focus on unwanted children and infanticide, meaning the cases after the child is born (Shapiro, 2013). To illustrate, it condemns the killing of children in cases of economic hardship. Let’s have a look at relevant passages in the Quran.

Surah Al-Isra (17:31) states that “do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”.

In similar lines, Surah Al-An’am (6:151) states the following:

“Say (O Prophet to the infidels), ‘Come, and I shall recite what your Lord has prohibited for you: Do not associate anything with Him (as His partner); and be good to parents, and do not kill your children because of poverty – We will give provision to you, and to them as well – and do not go near shameful acts, whether they are open or secret; and do not kill a person whom Allah has given sanctity, except rightfully. This He has enjoined upon you, so that you may understand.”

Moreover, Surah Al-Isra (17:33) continues as follows:

And do not kill the soul [i.e., person] which Allah has forbidden, except by right. And whoever is killed unjustly – We have given his heir authority, but let him not exceed limits in [the matter of] taking life. Indeed, he has been supported [by the law].”

As you can see, those passages of the Quran talk about children, and there is no specific mention of abortion. Instead, they refer to living offspring. So, one questions who it refers to by ‘children.’ Is the foetus considered a child? When does it become a living soul? Also, as mentioned above, Surah Al-Isra (17:33) says, ‘except by right.’ What are the conditions that make it right? Let’s first focus on foetal development in the Quran.

The Quran is sensitive to gradual development between conception and childbirth. There are four main stages of foetal development:

1. nutfa (sperm), starting with conception to 40 days, and it is about semen, and the ovum gathered in the womb:

2. alaqa (blood clot), between 40-80 days, and it is about developing into a clinging blood-like clot:

3. mudgha (embryo), between 80-120 days, and it is about a clot forming into the clump of flesh:

4. khalqan akhar (spirit), 120 days to birth, and in this process, ensoulment occurs, and the foetus possesses a spirit (Shapiro, 2013).

Thus, at the last stage, the foetal organism is transformed into something substantially different from previous stages by becoming a human being. This information is extracted from the following Quranic verse:

“We created man out of the extract of clay, (23:13) then We made him into a drop of life-germ, then We placed it in a safe depository, (23:14) then We made this drop into a clot, then We made the clot into a lump, then We made the lump into bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then We caused it to grow into another creation. Thus Most Blessed is Allah, the Best of all those that create” (Surah Al-Mu’minun 23:12-14).

Similarly, Sunnah and Hadith further elaborate on the Quran’s embryonic stages of development and ensoulment instead of directly citing abortion. For instance, one Hadith states the following:

The creation of each one of you is collected in the womb of his mother in forty days. And something that clings (Alakah) he becomes for forty days, and then he becomes Modgha (a chewed lump) for forty days. The angel is sent to him and the angel writes four things: his provision (sustenance), his life span, his deeds and whether he will be wretched or blessed. Then the spirit is breathed into him. (as cited in Albar, 2001, p.32).

Approach of different Islamic schools to abortion

At this point, it is essential to mention that different schools of thought of Sunni Islam are not unanimous about at which stages abortion is permissible. In first three stages, Hanafites and some of Shafites and some of Hanbalites permit abortion, while Malikites prohibit (Shapiro, 2013). In the last stage, meaning when it is believed that the ensoulment occurs, all four schools prohibit (Shapiro, 2013). Thus, it can be said that views about abortion in Islam change between and within different schools before the ensoulment of the fetus, ranging between permissibility, discouragement, and prohibition. There are some anti-abortion positions, but they are not categorical. And, once a fetus has a soul (after 120 days of conception), it is generally accepted as prohibited except for some conditions.

Conditions that may allow for abortion after the ensoulment of the fetus

1. When a mother’s health is endangered

It is believed that a mother’s life takes precedence over the life of the fetus. While a woman is considered an ‘original source of life,’ the fetus is ‘potential’ life (Omotosho, 2015).

2. When there is a proven congenital severe anomaly in the embryo or fetus

If the fetus has an untreatable severe condition proven by medical professionals, abortion may be allowed.

3. In the case of rape

This is often reflected through fatawa (non-binding religious edicts) of religious leaders, which can be considered another source of Islamic knowledge. To exemplify, Muhammed Sayed Tantawi issued a fatwa in 1998 stating that unmarried women who are survivors of rape should have access to abortion. Moreover, the Islamic Supreme Council issued a fatwa in Algeria in 1998 that abortions are allowed in cases of rape, given that rape was used as a weapon of war. However, although they are fewer than abortion supporters, some fatawa argue that rape does not justify the need for legal abortion (Hessini, 2007). Once again, there is no unanimous decision between different schools. While most Sunnis allow abortion in cases of rape, Shiites think it is not an adequate cause for abortion (Hatun & Yılmaz, 2020).

Effects of criminalizing abortion based on Islamic beliefs

Criminalizing abortion does not efface the practice. It creates even more layered difficulties for those who want to go through it. The lack of reliable services and safe abortion makes people go through uncontrolled and dangerous operations and put their health at greater risk. Most abortions in Muslim countries take place in clandestine settings by a person who lacks the necessary skills or in unsanitary conditions, or both (Rahajeng, 2020). Each year, 47.000 people die from complications related to unsafe abortion (Atay, 2019).

Unsafe abortion is an issue of discrimination leading to social inequalities, widespread illnesses, and premature death (Rahajeng, 2020). Not only are the services often of poor quality, but they are also quite expensive (Rahajeng, 2020). It is often challenging and costly to travel elsewhere to get safe abortion. Some resort to the black market as an only choice and become victims of scammers selling fake abortion pills at high prices (Atay, 2019).

Where does Islam stand against abortion?

Against the strict stereotype that Islam prohibits abortion, different schools of thought approach differently to the issue. This is primarily a result of a lack of clear and direct statement regarding abortion in the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadith. What determines those schools’ approach to abortion can be summarized as:

  • the timing of the abortion (the process of fatal development, generally within 120 days of gestation),
  • the health of the mother (if the child is endangering the mother’s life),
  • cases of rape.

It can be argued that different schools commonly accept that killing a souled person is murder.

Principle of individual interpretation

One fundamental principle in Islam is individual interpretation. Those who believe are encouraged to read and analyze sources to find solutions to contemporary problems (Hessini, 2007). Individuals can develop their own interpretations and choose what to believe. Everyone should have the right to decide what they want to do with their bodies. Individuals can and should be able to choose freely whether they go through abortion or not. And, given the negative consequences of lack of proper services, individuals should have access to safe abortion if they decide to go through it. Many feminists worldwide raise their voices and campaign on granting legal jurisdiction for women over their own bodies. As stated by a famous slogan, ‘abortion is a right, and decision belongs to women.’