February 9, 2012
Life Begins With… Thoughts on Abortion and Conception



5 min read

Abortion is an important and at times divisive topic in American discourse. In this post we will discuss neither of the two extremes, but instead take a reductionist approach to the issue. Bear minimums here on applicable issues, evidences, and arguments. Many times when an issue is discussed in Islamic law both sides will gruel it out with lengthy arguments, we’ll cut to the chase here.

A reductionist view of the Abortion argument

What are the essential issues at hand? Parental rights to the procreation of a child is definitely a major issue, as is the circumstance in which the child was conceived. But the last word in the latter sentence is what really means something to this argument.

How is conception viewed in Islamic law? Does “life” start at conception?

Scholars of Islam debated whether life starts at conception, the combining of the sperm and the egg and the subsequent creation of the zygote, or whether conception was to be taken to mean the combining of the soul with the flesh.

Those that defended the first position cited that in the hadith of the “Ghurrah” (see Bulugh al-Maram*) the woman who hit the other in the stomach and caused her to have a miscarriage was fined for her action. This shows that life started at conception, as the hadith does not mention which trimester she was in, but instead simply mentions the miscarriage of the fetus “hidden” in the womb. Since she was fined for this crime of killing the fetus, this shows that the fetus deserved the legal status of life and all that it entails, even though the fetus was not viable.

Those that said that life begins with the soul meeting the flesh, used the hadith of Ibn Masoud in Muslim “…then the soul is blown into it, and four things are written…” this occurring after three forty-day periods, i.e. 120 days. So the fetus is not considered a “life” until it combines with the soul. If the fetus was aborted before this point, one would not be considered to have terminated a “soul” but instead it would be similar to amputating a limb.

The proponents of this latter opinion counter the evidence of the first group of scholars by saying that if the child had been considered a “life” then the punishment would have been equal to that paid for any other person killed unknowingly, i.e. the full blood-wit (diyah, دية). Since the women was not fined that amount, it means that she had committed something equivalent to amputating the limb of the attacked. The latter group then concludes that aborting a fetus before 120 days is permitted, even if it is disliked.

Some scholars of the second group take their logic a step further. They say that if a person was to have grown a sixth toe or finger, or have a growth of flesh on their body, that no one would blame them for amputating it, a priori if a women were to abort her fetus before 120 days it would nothing more than amputation of a bodily growth.

Ethics of the argument

Someone may say “Well why say that it is permitted? Wouldn’t that cause more problems than it solves?”

Yes and no.

If we take the hard-line approach that abortion is not allowed in any case, then things much worse than abortion will happen, in addition to the abortion. For instance, when abortion laws were in effect many women were forced to abort fetuses late in term and/or under less than favorable circumstances. False claims/accusations at times were made to justify these abortions so as to gain access to proper medical care instead of unsafe self-induced methods.

If we take a very soft-line approach to abortion, this means that anyone, any time, will be able to abort their child. Married or unmarried, from rape or consensual sex, all one needs to do is come in for an abortion. Now while this may seem like the better of the two scenarios, you still run into moral dilemmas. What if the father wants the baby, and the mother doesn’t? What if she cheats on him, and wants to get rid of the evidence? There are obviously and endless number of questions we could ask.

However, many of those what-ifs lead back to a singular issue: the moral decision of the woman. Yes as hard as it is to swallow (and using one of the worst examples in mind), if a woman cheated on her husband, had an abortion, and never told anyone, it would be her in front of God on the day of Judgment, with the sin of adultery and the abortion of her fetus. Lets say she decided to keep the child, raise it as her husbands, and quietly go about her life. Would she be harming anyone? Take the long terms consequences into consideration, and perhaps she would.

So while she may hide her sin and abort the child in the first scenario, at best dealing with one sin in the hereafter and at worst with two, in the second scenario she would not only be dealing with the sin of adultery, along with (possibly that of) abortion, and the sin of attributing a child to other than it’s father, additionally she would deal with the consistent lies she would have to tell to cover her tracks. She could admit to it all, and expiate her sin in this life, an exercise in weighing the consequences of one’s actions. This will have a profound effect on an individual’s faith and is a decision better left to the one making it. What type of mental health considerations are made when dealing with someone requesting an abortion?

So which of the two approaches is preferred? The more authoritarian approach which restricts all cases of abortion or the more libertarian approach that allows it in all cases? Both sides seem to have their strengths and weaknesses. A libertarian approach is still viable for a conservative, in that it preserves them from the publicity of announcing cases of rape, incest, and fornication/adultery. However this same approach can backfire, in that a very open libertarian approach to abortion can aid in covering up cases of rape and incest, in that many times victims are afraid to inform the authorities of the crime, because they perceive future harm from doing so.

In the end of the day, at least from a legislative perspective, it is not a black & white issue. Every society would then need to make decisions based on its needs and necessities. The whole issue is exacerbated by new methods of abortion which make it that much easier to obtain, such as the morning after pill, etc. Other issues that must be considered are those of Muslim doctors and pharmacists who are asked to perform abortions or dispense medication that cause them. What would or should their position be, or does this (like our earlier example) go back to personal ethics and morals?

The Morning After Pill and Emergency Contraception (Added 2/12/2018)

When I first wrote this article, I briefly touched on the morning after pill which I erroneously said was a “new method of abortion.” After several readers contacted me about this factual error, I decided to update this article with more current information in light of the arguments above. With 45% of all pregnancies in the U.S. being unintended, emergency contraception offers an alternative to unintended pregnancy.

Emergency contraception, “Morning After” pills, and “Day After” pills are in really alternate terms for the same thing, hormones that reduce your chances of becoming pregnant in protection is not used, fails, or a woman is forced to have sex against her will. These hormones are found in regular daily oral contraceptive pills. Estrogen, Progestin, ulipristal acetate, or mifepristone. These are taken individually or in combination with each other, and can reduce the chances of getting pregnant to varying degrees (75% to 88% or higher). While they are usually taken immediately after intercourse or in a relatively small window after intercourse. Some, such as ulipristal acetate (marketed as Ella) can be taken within a window of 120 hours = 5 days after sex. Copper bearing IUDs can be inserted up to five days after sex as well, and last considerably longer than the hormonal methods. There are obviously medical details that are beyond the scope of this article, but I’d suggest reading this paper if you would like to know more.

These means of Emergency contraception are not, as some may think, “Abortion Pills.” They do not kill a pregnancy that has already taken place; they prevent it from happening in the first place. So how do these pills work? They prevent pregnancy in one of three ways: by preventing ovulation, preventing fertilization, or preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. The prevention of ovulation and fertilization can be characterized as having the same rationale and effect as coitus interruptus (‘azl), the act of pulling out the penis before orgasm to prevent insemination and subsequent fertilization. There is general consensus on the permissibility of coitus interruptus as a valid act for preventing pregnancy. There are however some details not mentioned here which are beyond the scope of this article, such as when it may be performed and whether it must be a consensual acts between spouses.

Given the conclusions above concerning when life begins, we can see that the stage at which emergency contraception pills are effective is well below the threshold for either of the two positions on this issue.

Simply put: Emergency contraception pills do not abort pregnancy or end life, as as such there should be no ethical objection to their use under Islamic medical ethics and law, and as such should prevent no moral conundrum for Muslim physicians and pharmacists who prescribe and dispense them.

Have Anything to Add?

I’d be interested to hear from health care professionals, women’s care providers, and ethics majors on the issues mentioned above. Those Islamic studies experts that would like to present more of the first group of scholars opinion are more than welcome to as well.


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