This squares beautifully with Thomas Aquinas' description of humans as "participants in divine providence." Also, in Catholic theology, relying on God's sustaining power to do what we have been equipped by God to do for ourselves is called the sin of "tempting God."
Contraception has a long history in Islam. Early Islam actually developed contraceptive medicine and instructed Europe on it. Avicenna the Muslim physician in his book "The Law" discusses twenty different substances used for birth control. Such Islamic books of medicine were used for centuries in Europe. When Europe was in its "dark ages," Islamic culture with its stress on education kept the light of learning burning to the benefit of all peoples.
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The most common form of birth control when Islam began was called azl, withdrawal - coitus interruptus. There are five major schools of law in Islam, and all five permit the practice of azl, four of the five insisting that the consent of the wife is necessary. And here is where ijtihad comes in, reasoning analogically from something already permitted. The Arab Republic of Egypt published a booklet called "Islam's Attitude towards Family Planning." They state in its introduction that broad consultation with the most authoritative sources in Islam went into the research on this book. After noting that azl was permitted, they argued that any method that has the same purpose as azl and does not induce permanent sterility is acceptable for Muslims. They then go on to list methods such as the cervical cap, the condom, contraceptive pills, injections to produce temporary sterility, and the "loop device" placed in the uterus to prevent implantation of the fertilized egg.
There are many reasons justifying contraception: reasons of health, economics, the preservation of the woman's appearance (!), and improving the quality of offspring. This last reason is important in Islam because the Islamic approach to contraception has a social conscience. It is concerned with the common good. Producing sickly, weak, or underdeveloped or uneducated children is not good for the umma, for the society. The Egyptian study says that "the strength of a nation is measured not by numbers or quantities, but rather by quality." The study stresses the importance "of being rational and moderate and of living within the possible means and available resources." The hadith literature also says it is better to have few who are virtuous than many who are not. Once again, human life deserves to thrive, not just to eke out a living.
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.