In this article:
- In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, thousands of women have been stripped of access to abortions, spurring fears that other reproductive rights may be soon to follow.
- Despite the belief that this pro-life stance is inherently religious in nature, many religions actually have pro-abortion stances that allow for abortion as healthcare.
- This article discusses pro-abortion interpretations under Islam and Judaism.
It’s been months since the US Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade, removing the legitimacy of abortions and affecting millions of women for whom abortion is healthcare. The public’s trust in the current Supreme Court is at historically low levels, but the shot has already been fired and the arrow shows no sign as yet of returning to the bow.
The conservative, so-called pro-life, right-wing politicians continue to support and further the denial of abortion rights to the nation’s women, ignoring the fact that the rest of the nation, and the world, do not share their anti-abortion views.
Pro-abortion Stances Are the Norm
On International Safe Abortion Day, celebrated globally on 28th September, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released the following statement:
Today … we reaffirm our unwavering commitment to upholding a woman’s fundamental right to choose. No one should ever be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy, and the Government of Canada is unequivocal in that pursuit.Justin Trudeau, Official Statement, International Safe Abortion Day, 28 SEP 2022
In a landmark ruling by the Indian Supreme Court on 29th September, the court affirmed universal abortion rights to all women and extended the legitimate abortion limit to 24 weeks, while also acknowledging marital rape as a crime.
Meanwhile, on the home front, protests against recent abortion bans continue on US soil. In many states, a lot depends on midterm elections. Abortion rights are on the ballot and pro-abortion activists are fearful of losing those rights in the Midwest where most states hold abortion legal.
On Friday, 30th September, many people joined forces in protest by skipping work and taking part in protest and awareness events. People from all walks of life walked out of work to march in protest and attended National Teach-In events. The main call was given in august by a group of Black women leaders who say they are exhausted by having to choose between fighting for democracy and feeding our families. Partner organizations include Movement for Black Lives, Move On, the Women’s March, MomsRising Together, March for Our Lives, and the Working Families Party.
All these examples clarify that pro-abortion stances are the norm, rather than the exception in today’s world. It’s a persistent demand of 20th-century women that is not going anywhere until justice is restored.
It is high time we normalize pro-abortion stances by surveying what other major religions and cultures in the world teach on this issue. We have already done a deep dive into the history of Christianity and abortion rights. To our pleasant surprise, we found that, as far as the foundation of Christianity is concerned, there is no basis for anti-abortion views in either the Bible or Jesus’ life and teachings. We also found no basis for the Catholic reasoning — “life begins at conception” — that is the root of their anti-abortion policy that starts decades after Jesus.
How Judaism Interprets Abortion, Conception, and Life in the Womb
Jewish sacred texts are a part of the Bible. Bible is an anthology of various religious texts, and Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament — is a part of it. Torah, the most well-known Jewish sacred text, is a part of Tanakh, Nevi’im and Ketuvim being the other two. The oral traditions of the Torah, later legal interpretations of the sacred texts, were later transcribed as Madrish and Talmud.
Exodus 21: 22-25 and a Pro-abortion Interpretation?
As discussed in my last post on abortion, there is only one verse in the Bible that directly mentions a miscarriage scenario.
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”EXODUS 21: 22-25.
Exodus is part of the Hebrew Bible, specifically, the Torah. This verse has served as the foundation to derive a stance on abortion by scholars of Judaism of the past and present.
Even without applying a specific religious lens, the wording of the verse clearly holds the life of the mother superior to that of the fetus, by demanding more revenge on the perpetrator of violence if the harm to the pregnant woman goes beyond the loss of the fetus and hurts her person.
Since the harsher punishment is exacted when the pregnant woman is harmed, while the loss of the fetus only gets a fine, a clear, Biblical preference for the life of the woman over the fetus can be deduced. As such, many scholars find that this verse tends pro-abortion (see below).
Jewish, Pro-abortion Interpretations of Exodus 21: 22-25
Talmudic scholars have traditionally maintained the word “harm” in this verse refers to the mother’s body, and not the fetus, since the fetus is not fully considered a human. Their reasoning is based on Exodus 21: 12 which states:
He that smiteth a man so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death.EXODUS 21: 12
Rabbinic Clarification of Multiple Sources on Abortion
According to Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, we find three different interpretations of the status of fetus, all with strong sources supporting them:
- Fetus is Not a Human: There are many sources that clearly show that the death of a fetus by violent action is not considered murder and the matter is resolved with a fine of the father’s choosing.
- Fetus is a Human Life: One strong source, Maimonides in Rotzeach u’Shemirat Nefesh 1:9, permits killing a fetus only when it is endangering the life of the mother. In other cases, killing a fetus is equivalent to murder.
- Fetus is a Potential Life: This third interpretation rests on the source Arachin 7b, which permits desecrating Shabat if a pregnant woman has died with a potentially viable baby inside. Scholar Rishonim derives from this permission that while the killing of a fetus is not necessarily murder, it is to be saved even by desecrating Shabat since it might grow up to be Judah’s follower and observe Shabat in its life.
When Does Judaism Allow Abortion?
Saving an Existing Life: Saving the mother’s life by terminating a pregnancy when it’s the only way goes without a doubt in the Jewish tradition. Even recently, protesting over the strict abortion bans placed in Alabama and Mississippi in 1999, Jewish scholars in the US invoked this argument. Even Orthodox Judaism, which is a more conservative sector and prohibits abortions in most scenarios, permits it when the mother’s life is in danger.
Preventing Physical/Emotional/Psychological Harm: The Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is okay with abortion if it is to prevent any kind of severe harm to the pregnant person.
Deformed Fetus: The same committee also includes a severely defective fetus — as ruled by competent medical opinion — as a valid reason for abortion. The Reform Movement in Judaism broadens the definition of defects as genetic diseases that will cause certain death or severely debilitating disability in the growing child after birth.
Result of Rape or Incest: The Reform Movement also specifies pregnancies resulting from forced intercourse in rape as a permissible situation to opt for an abortion.
Fetal Status and Abortion Rights in Islam
Qur’an is the sacred scripture and the holy book of Islam. The oral tradition which consists of verbal and behavioral interpretation of the Qur’anic injunctions by Prophet Mohammed has been recorded since his time and is called Hadith.
There is no direct reference to abortions, miscarriages, or the status of the fetus anywhere in the Qur’an or Hadith. Other than that, there are two significant descriptions of the stages of embryonic development, one each in either source. The Qur’an says:
And indeed We created humankind from an essence of clay. Then We placed him as a sperm-drop in a resting place firm; then We created the sperm-drop into a clinging substance, then We created the clinging substance into an embryonic lump, then We created from the embryonic lump bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We produced it as another creation. So blessed is God, the best of creators.AL-MU’MINUN: 11
The Hadith also adds another stage that is not mentioned in the Qur’anic verse above, called ensoulment:
The human being is brought together in the mother’s womb for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid, and then becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. … Then the soul is breathed into him.Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 54, Hadith Number 430
The Basis for Islamist Interpretations of Abortion Rights
The stages of embryonic development and the concept of ensoulment serve as the basis to deduce both fetal and maternal abortion rights in Islamic jurisprudence.
According to the hadith quoted, it takes 3 stages, each comprising 40 days, to reach the point of ensoulment. Islamic law acknowledges the inheritance rights of the fetus once the pregnancy has crossed the 120-day mark. It can leave an inheritance to its siblings in case of its death, or be a means of blood money paid to the parents if it died because of violence to the pregnant mother.
There are several schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence in all matters of sharia, derived from the earliest scholars and leaders of sharia interpretation accepted across the Muslim world. With some small differences, nearly all schools of thought use the concept of ensoulment as the major pivot for all decisions.
Regardless of all the guidelines, all decisions are shown to be made on a case-by-case basis. Even today in most countries, decisions always depend on the family in question rather than on a pre-determined set of laws and their enforcement, reminds Zahra Ayubi, Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College.
When Does Islam Allow Abortion?
Unconditional Permission to terminate a pregnancy: Some scholars in both Shiite (of Zaydi school) and Sunni sectors (of Hanafi, Shafi and Hanbali schools allow termination of pregnancy, especially in the pre-ensoulment period, with or without any valid reason, and may recommend use of natural abortifacients to achieve it during the first 40 days.
Conditional Permission to terminate with justification: The majority of Shafi and Hanafi scholars subscribe to this interpretation. An abortion without justification is disapproved but not forbidden. One after 120 days is considered harmful for the mother and disapproved due to the accepted financial status of the fetus.
General Disapproval but not forbidden: Followers of the Maliki school of thought (Sunni sector) disapprove and discourage all abortions but they too do not restrict it as haram or illegal. Permission is assumed with the existence of valid and especially unavoidable reasons.
General Prohibition: This is a very rare interpretation followed only by limited scholars of Zahiri (Sunni), Ibadiyah, and Imamiyah (Shiite) schools.
As already said, abortion is largely permissible when it comes to Islamic jurisprudence, especially with a valid reason, and especially in the early stages of pregnancy when it is safe for the mother and the fetus is not fully developed.
In practice, throughout the Muslim world, these decisions are always between the mother, the family, and the medical supervision, and rarely matters of law. Where they are looked upon, forcefully forbidden, or criminalized, it is more to do with political control over women’s lives or extreme and exaggerated interpretations of the early jurisprudence, and without any foundation in either Qur’an or Hadith.
How the Muslim and Jewish Abortion Traditions Differ From Western Attitudes
Both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life philosophies of the Western world are blanket interpretations of Abortion Rights. One approach allows them and the other refutes them, and both do so unconditionally, without regard for context, nuance, and other circumstances.
As our review of Jewish and Muslim religious law shows, the mainstream interpretation is a consideration of the whole context and circumstance of pregnancy, from the condition of the fetus to the stage of embryonic development to the possibility and threat to the mother’s physical and emotional well-being.
Where conditions are imposed, they are merely requirements for valid reasons, with clear precedence of maternal rights over fetal rights. Consideration for fetal life, once the state of the embryo is viable enough to survive is also a call to caution and a bid to save both mother and the baby, rather than a disregard for the mother’s health and situation.