Family Planning and Abortion in Islam
By Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.
Control of women centers largely on control of women's bodies. Beliefs that identify women with the body, to the exclusion of the mind and spirit, remain a common feature of many religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions. Islam is no exception. Moreover, while women are identified with the body, in these traditions they are not seen as "owners" of their own bodies.
To control women's sexuality is a means of controlling their bodies, and to control (or deny) family planning is to govern women's sexuality. This is why the matter of who controls women's bodies - whether it is men, the church, the state or community, or women themselves - was a significant underlying issue of the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in 1994 and the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. This is why it will surface again at the UN's Fifth World Conference on Women in 2012.
Women in most Muslim societies have minimal access to reliable means of contraception. This reflects the influence of conservative Muslims who proclaim from public platforms and preach from the pulpits of the mosques that family planning is against Islam. Like the traditions of veiling and confinement, denial of family planning supports male ownership and control of women, both directly and symbolically.
The Quran does not directly address contemporary family planning issues - a silence that in itself indicates neither support nor opposition nor a lack of relevant principles. Instead, the open text of the Quran establishes an ethical framework in which it is appropriate to discuss family planning questions. (The Quran does include both pro-natal verses and verses directed toward population control. Of the three mutually contradictory hadiths concerning the withdrawal method of contraception, two imply that it is acceptable.)
Given Islam's religious and ethical framework, family planning itself should be seen as a fundamental human right, especially for masses of disadvantaged Muslim women.
Among the principles supporting women's access to family planning services are the equality of women with men, the entitlement to respect for one's humanity, the right to justice and equity, the right to be free of traditionalism and authoritarianism, the right to privacy, the right to gain knowledge and use one's reason, the right to work and earn and own property, the right to move freely, and the right to enjoy life. Family planning helps women and men to secure and exercise these fundamental human rights. The rights to respect and freedom from authoritarianism, suspicion, and slander, in particular, also respond to the belief, still held by some, that contraceptives make it possible for women to engage in licentious behavior without penalty.
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Several additional Quranic principles support those who choose to use family planning. First, each individual is responsible for his or her actions. Although the Quran calls God the sustainer of all creation, it does not absolve individuals or communities of responsibility for their survival and well-being. Rather, it reminds us that we are responsible for our deeds -- indeed, for our souls [Surahs 74:Al-Muddaththir:38 and 52:At-Tur:21: "for itself lies every soul in pledge"]. Similarly, the Quran notes that reason is what elevates us above other creatures, that righteous belief demands righteous action, and that God asks us to change ourselves as a precondition of changing our conditions. All these ideas support human responsibility where reproduction is concerned.
Finally, the Quran does not make a requirement of marriage or childbearing. Nor does it follow pre-Islamic traditions that sanctify sperm itself as the equal of human life. The quality, or righteousness, of people is more important than their quantity.
A review of Muslim jurisprudence shows that many jurists have considered abortion to be permissible within the first 120 days of pregnancy for a number of reasons. Traditionally, scholars have distinguished between the impermissible abortion of an ensouled fetus and the permissible abortion of a fetus not yet ensouled. The authorities differ as to whether a compelling reason is required for abortion and what constitutes a compelling reason.
Riffat Hassan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky.