Abortion and contraception in Islam

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I cringe when referring to Muslim Scholars of the past as some of them had it all wrong. However in case of abortion and its ethics in this article, there is a plurality of the opinion and thankfully lacks the rigidity.  In the following article, I appreciate their struggle on life. It is close the shared values of US Constitution thus far, and we are, like the Muslim scholars  struggling in deciding when and how a pregnancy can be terminated.
I have maintained that Islam is common sense, and it is good to read this piece and recommend others to read.

Mike Ghouse
World Muslim Congress

Courtesy of BBC

The abortion debate asks whether it can be morally right to terminate a pregnancy before normal childbirth.

Some people think that abortion is always wrong. Some think that abortion is right when the mother’s life is at risk. Others think that there is a range of circumstances in which abortion is morally acceptable.

Islamic teachings on abortion

Ultrasound picture of a female foetus aged 16 weeksIslam rarely permits abortion after 120 days. This foetus is about 112 days old ©

Muslims regard abortion as wrong and haram (forbidden), but many accept that it may be permitted in certain cases.
All schools of Muslim law accept that abortion is permitted if continuing the pregnancy would put the mother’s life in real danger. This is the only reason accepted for abortion after 120 days of the pregnancy.
Different schools of Muslim law hold different views on whether any other reasons for abortion are permitted, and at what stage of pregnancy if so.
Some schools of Muslim law permit abortion in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, while others only permit it in the first 7 weeks.
However, even those scholars who would permit early abortion in certain cases still regard abortion as wrong, but do not regard it as a punishable wrong. The more advanced the pregnancy, the greater the wrong.
The Qur’an does not explicitly refer to abortion but offers guidance on related matters. Scholars accept that this guidance can properly be applied to abortion.

Sanctity of life

The Islamic view is based on the very high priority the faith gives to the sanctity of life. The Qur’an states:
Whosoever has spared the life of a soul, it is as though he has spared the life of all people. Whosoever has killed a soul, it is as though he has murdered all of mankind.
Qur’an 5:32
Most Muslim scholars would say that a foetus in the womb is recognised and protected by Islam as a human life.

Protection of the mother’s life

Islam allows abortion to save the life of the mother because it sees this as the ‘lesser of two evils’ and there is a general principle in Sharia (Muslim law) of choosing the lesser of two evils.
Abortion is regarded as a lesser evil in this case because:
  • the mother is the ‘originator’ of the foetus
  • the mother’s life is well-established
  • the mother has with duties and responsibilities
  • the mother is part of a family
  • allowing the mother to die would also kill the foetus in most cases

Providing for the child

The Qur’an makes it clear that a foetus must not be aborted because the family fear that they will not be able to provide for it – they should trust Allah to look after things:
Kill not your offspring for fear of poverty; it is We who provide for them and for you. Surely, killing them is a great sin.
Qur’an 17:32
The same (and similar) texts also ban abortion on social or financial grounds relating to the mother or the rest of the family – e.g. that the pregnancy wasn’t planned and a baby will interfere with the mother’s life, education or career.

For the baby’s sake

Abortion for the sake of the baby

If it is confirmed in the early period of pregnancy that a foetus suffers from a defect that can’t be treated and that will cause great suffering to the child, a number of scholars would say that it is permissible to abort, provided that the pregnancy is less than 120 days old.

Red blood cells, biconcave disc shapes, as seen under a scanning electron microscopeFoetuses with a particular genetic blood disorder can be aborted ©

A slightly more liberal opinion is that abortion within the first 120 days would be permitted if a child would be born with such physical and mental deformity as would deprive the child of a normal life. The opinion of at least two competent medical specialists is required.
Other scholars disagree and hold that abortion is not permitted in such cases.
There is almost unanimous opinion that after 120 days an abortion is not permissible unless the defect in the embryo puts the mother’s life in danger.
In recent times in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameni has issued a fatwa permitting abortion for foetuses under 10 weeks shown to have the genetic blood disorder thalassemia.
And also in Iran, Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei issued a fatwa which permits abortion in the first three months for various reasons. Saanei accepted that abortion was generally forbidden in Islam, but went on to say:
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,
Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei quoted in Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2000
Widely quoted is a resolution of the Islamic jurisprudence council of Mekkah Al Mukaramah (the Islamic World League) passing a Fatwa in its 12th session held in February 1990. This allowed abortion if the foetus was:
grossly malformed with untreatable severe condition proved by medical investigations and decided upon by a committee formed by competent trustworthy physicians, and provided that abortion is requested by the parents and the foetus is less than 120 days computed from moment of conception.
Attributed, Mekkah Al Mukaramah, February 1990
NB: We have not been able to obtain an English language copy of this fatwa to corroborate the quote.

Rape, incest and adultery

Some scholars state that abortion where the mother is the victim of a rape or of incest is permissible in the first 120 days of the pregnancy.
Others say abortion for such reasons is never permitted.
Explaining the difficulty of such a case, one scholar says:
I believe that the value of life is the same whether this embryo is the result of fornication with relatives or non-relatives or valid marriage. In Sharia life has the same value in all cases.
Sheikh M. A. Al-Salami, Third Symposium on Medical Jurisprudence
It is reported that Bosnian women raped by the Serbian army were issued a fatwa allowing them to abort, but were urged to complete the abortion before the 120 day mark. A similar fatwa was issued in Algeria.
This demonstrates that Islamic law has the flexibility to be compassionate in appropriate circumstances.
In Egypt (where abortion is illegal) in June 2004, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, approved a draft law allowing women to abort a pregnancy that is the result of rape. The law would also make it legal for women to undergo an abortion more than four months after conception.
His decision caused controversy among other Muslim scholars: The mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, said Tantawi’s decision was wrong and violated the Qur’an’s injunction that “forbids killing innocent souls.” He said, “It is haram [forbidden] to abort the fetus after life is breathed into it, in other words after 120 days.” However, he added that a woman could terminate a pregnancy if she was in immediate danger.
Islam does not permit abortion where an unwanted pregnancy is the result of unforced adultery.

The soul

Abortion and the soul

Ultrasound picture of a foetusAbortion is not permissible after the foetus has a soul

Islam forbids the termination of a pregnancy after soul or ‘Ruh’ is given to the foetus.
There’s disagreement within Islam as to when this happens. The three main opinions are:
  • at 120 days
  • at 40 days
  • when there is voluntary movement of the foetus
    • This usually happens during the 12th week of gestation but many women don’t notice the movement until much later – sometimes as late as 20 weeks.
A relevant hadith suggests that the moment of ensoulment is 120 days:
Narrated Abdullah: Allah’s Apostle, the true and truly inspired said, “(as regards your creation), every one of you is collected in the womb of his mother for the first forty days, and then he becomes a clot for another forty days, and then a piece of flesh for another forty days. Then Allah sends an angel to write four words: He writes his deeds, time of his death, means of his livelihood, and whether he will be wretched or blessed (in religion). Then the soul is breathed into his body…”
Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 549
However, it’s important to note that many scholars believe that life begins at conception, and that all scholars believe that an embryo deserves respect and protection at all stages of the pregnancy.

Islamic views on contraception

Islamic medicine has known about birth control for centuries – for example the Muslim writers Avicenna (980-1037) and Al-Razi (d 923 or 924) refer to different methods of contraception.
Islam is strongly pro-family and regards children as a gift from God.
Muslim sexual ethics forbid sex outside marriage, so its teachings about birth control should be understood within the context of husband and wife.
There is no single attitude to contraception within Islam; however eight of the nine classic schools of Islamic law permit it.
But more conservative Islamic leaders have openly campaigned against the use of condoms or other birth control methods, thus making population planning in many countries ineffective.
This resistance to birth control was reflected in 2005 when a conference involving 40 Islamic scholars from 21 countries urged fresh efforts to push population planning and better reproductive health services.
But although all the participants were in favour of promoting the use of contraceptives for married couples, they were reluctant to make it part of their joint declaration for fear of reprisals from the more conservative Islamic scholars in their respective countries.

The Qur’an

The Qur’an does not refer to contraception explicitly, but Muslims opposed to birth control often quote the Qur’an as saying “You should not kill your children for fear of want” (17:31, 6:151) and interpret this as including a ban on contraception as well as infanticide. Supporters of birth control argue that this interpretation is wrong.
In practice most Muslim authorities permit contraception to preserve the health of the mother or the well-being of the family.


There are a number of hadith which indicate that the Prophetknew of birth control and approved of it in appropriate circumstances.


Hadith are said to describe and approve of the withdrawal method (‘azl).
Scholars point out that this method may deprive the woman of both sexual fulfilment and of having children, and so should not be used without the woman’s agreement.
Egyptian scholars have argued that any method that has the same purpose as ‘azl – i.e. preventing conception – is acceptable, so long as it does not have a permanent effect.
Contraceptive methods that do not prevent conception but cause a very early abortion are not accepted.
Contraception with the aim of having a permanently child-free marriage is not accepted. So sterilisation is wrong – partly because it prevents children permanently and partly because of a text forbidding men to castrate themselves.

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