Contraception and Abortion in Islam
What then about sterilization? In blessing the use of contraceptives, we saw the pre-condition that none of them cause permanent sterility. There is a wisdom in this. It is senseless to permanently sterilize if temporary sterility would meet the needs of the situation. Having stated the Islamic opposition to permanent sterilization, the Egyptian study immediately moves to exceptions and says that if the husband or wife suffers from a contagious or hereditary disease, permanent sterility is needed and moral. The study then invokes the principle of the lesser evil. That means you may have objections to sterilization but at times it will do less harm and is to be preferred. Interestingly, Catholic theologians today are using that same "lesser evil" argument to justify the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Even the Vatican is showing some flexibility on this and invoking the "lesser evil" principle to allow exceptions.
And then we come to abortion. There are those in Islam who oppose all abortions. A favored text to support this is: "Do not kill your children for fear of poverty for it is We who shall provide sustenance for you as well as for them." (Surah 6: At-Talaqa:2-3) Riffat Hassan notes that this textual reference is to killing already born children-usually girls. The text was condemning this custom. Also, she notes the Arabic word for killing in this text "means not only slaying with a weapon, blow or poison, but also humiliating or degrading or depriving children of proper upbringing and education." So once again, as in other religions, a text is being freighted with meaning that it cannot sustain. The text doesn't explicitly address abortion and therefore doesn't close the argument on it.
So the "no choice" view is not the prevailing view in Islam. There is broad acceptance in the major Islamic schools of law on the permissibility of abortion in the first four months of pregnancy. Most of the schools that permit abortion insist that there must be a serious reason for it such as a threat to the mother's life or the probability of giving birth to a deformed or defective child. However, as the Egyptian study says: "Jurists of the Shiite Zaidiya believe in the total permissibility of abortion before life is breathed into the fetus, no matter whether there is a justifiable excuse or not." That would be a pure form of what some call "abortion on demand."
The above excerpt is from the author's book, Sacred Choices.
Daniel C. Maguire is a professor of Moral Theological Ethics at Marquette University and President of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics. He is the author of Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions.