Islam’s principle of least harm and abortions
by Nazila Isgandarova* http://www.todayszaman.com/news-291778-islams-principle-of-least-harm-and-abortions-by-nazila-isgandarova
“Criminalizing or removing access to safe abortions is inappropriate and counter-productive … and very often forces women to either risk their health with unregistered and unsafe practitioners in the backstreets, or to seek help abroad, restricting safe abortions to wealthy women,” Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, deputy secretary-general of the Council of Europe, wrote to Today’s Zaman.
The suggestion offered by the author resonates well in the midst of the debates about the right of women for abortion in Turkey and invites the authorities to answer to these questions: What should be done? What should we do? What is right? What is good? When two values are in conflict, how do we reconcile them and/or move forward? What is the Islamic ethical point of view in regards to abortion? If it is haram (forbidden), what about the women who were victims of rape?
Who decides in the ethical decision-making process? The drafts for the abortion ban in Turkey also raised a question about whether abortion is a state issue or an individual choice. Does the Turkish Government have the right to ban it or keep it legal?
Turkey is a Muslim country and the majority of Muslims turn to Islamic sources for advice. Certain schools of Islamic thought allow for abortions during the 40-120th days of pregnancy. However, if a woman becomes aware of her pregnancy after 40 days or 120 days, what would happen to this woman in society, where the birth out of marriage is not supported? Or what about women who were raped?
Many Muslim countries struggled to answer to these questions for decades. The 1994 war in Bosnia especially triggered the debates about the abortions, when the Bosnian authorities tried to help out thousands of Bosniac women, who had been raped by Serbian soldiers. The question at that time was whether these women had right for abortion. It also opened up a broad discussion in the Islamic world.
Islamic authorities issued rules (fatwas) allowing women access to abort unwanted pregancies. The similar fatwa was issued for Bosnian women raped by the Serbian army and Azerbaijani women raped by the Armenian soldiers allowing them to abort the unwanted pregnancies. This was based on a similar fatwa, which was issued in Algeria, when Algerian women were raped by French soldiers. Later on, Muhammad Saeed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, approved a draft of laws allowing women to abort a pregnancy that is the result of a rape. According to these laws, these women are allowed to prevent pregnancy using the morning-after pill or RU486 to prevent the possible implantation of a fertilized ovum. His decision caused controversy among other Muslim scholars. The grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, for instance, later on said that Tantawi’s decision was incorrect and violated the Quran’s injunction that forbids killing innocent souls. Islamic ethics helps people and professionals to solve the ethical problem, issue or dilemmas when the religious authorities hold different views about the issue. Ethics is concerned with helping people to do what they believe to be right and decide what is right.
The principle of “the least of harm” in Islamic ethics needs to be considered as a main ethical principle in any discussion about abortion. In the above example of unwanted pregnancies after rape, we are faced with problems with no positive choices but are obliged to choose the option that will result in the least harm, the least permanent harm or the most easily reversible harm. This is an ethical dilemma involving a difficult choice between two alternatives that can be equally welcome or equally unwelcome, and it is not clear which choice will be the right one. The dilemma involves action and a choice to be made, moral agents can feel remorse and regret at the decision made or taken.
Islam teaches that the ethics is not right or wrong, black or white. God allows us to make worse decisions because it is the process of eventually making better decisions. The better ethical decisions are based on the principles of the sanctity of human life. In situations where there is an ethical dilemma, taking the lesser of the two evils is important. This is the principle of al-ahamm wa ‘l-muhimm (the more important and the less important). Islam instructs that it is God who gives life, provides sustenance and takes it back (the Quran, 30:4, 50:4, and 67:2). In this regard, the discussions about abortion are also about the debate about the dignity of human life. Muslims believe that life is a precious gift from God but humans are responsible for how they use this gift. Humans are responsible for preserving their life and the life of others. However, the question that we are faced with, in terms of saving life and the right to abortion, is challenging if women and the law makers do not share the same values.
According to al-Qaradawi, Islam allows abortion only when doctors declare with reasonable certainty that the continuation of pregnancy will endanger the woman’s life. It is narrated that the Prophet said, “When two forbidden things come [upon a person] together, then the lesser will be sacrificed for the greater.” In this case, a woman who was raped chooses between either letting the unborn child be aborted or letting a living woman suffer. Obviously Islam, first of all, gives preference to the latter and abortion is allowed to save the live person and eliminate the woman’s suffering. The Quran (2:233) also commands that “a mother should not be made to suffer because of her child.” In this regard, Islam emphasizes not only on preserving life but also the quality of life and different Islamic schools have different positions in this respect.
However, the problem here is that some Islamic schools are more liberal than others. For instance, the Hanafi school, which is prevalent in Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia and Shafi school, which is dominant in Southeast Asia, southern Arabia and parts of East Africa, allow abortions to be performed up to day 120. The Maliki school (prevalent in North and Black Africa) and the Hanbali school (predominant in Saudi Arabia and United Arabic Emirates) allow abortions until day 40. Some Shiite groups, such as the Ismailis, do not permit abortions to take place at all. Other Shiite groups such as the Zaydites allow abortions to be performed up to day 120. Grand Mufti of Jordan Shaykh ‘Abd Allah Al-Qalqili issued a fatwa in 1964 in which he said that the methods for “the prevention of childbearing is allowed. Doctors of religion inferred from this that it is permissible to take a drug to prevent childbearing, or even to induce abortion. We confidently rule in this fatwa that it is permitted to take measures to limit childbearing.”
As we see, Islam has not given any precise directions with regard to the issue of abortion. Islam, as the religion of pristine nature, has never been opposed to what is good to man. Indeed, it has always been ahead in the effort towards the achievement of this good so long as it is not in conflict with the purposes of divine law. Islamic legislation is directed towards avoidance of harm and seeks the best interest of humanity and this principle is derived from the prophetic saying, “No hurt, no damage in Islam.”
As Maud de Boer-Buquicchio argued, “Banning or limiting abortions looks like a simple and efficient way to boost the birth rate and hence guarantee a robust future workforce; in fact, it does more harm than good. Unwanted children and burdened families are an extra cost to the state in terms of broken relationships, neglected responsibilities and pressure on health and social services.”
If any curious reader wants to know how and why an abortion ban does more harm than good, here is one example. Those who want an abortion will find many ways to do it. Women who can afford abortion trips will terminate their pregnancies in the hospitals of neighboring countries, especially in Bosnia, Cyprus or in the UK. Women with fewer financial resources will use unsafe methods at the hands of unqualified practitioners. That is why I say do not criminalize abortion in Turkey! It will do more harm and damage to women and their families.
*Dr. Nazila Isgandarova is an adjunct faculty member at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto.