Women in the Middle East and Abortion laws
Laws in many Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are actually more lenient than those currently being pushed in some U.S. states.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that promotes sexual and reproductive health, 28 U.S. states are considering legislation that would ban abortion in various ways. The recent onslaught of anti-abortion bills is part of a right-wing effort to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, which continues to protect a woman’s liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
In the Middle East, while abortion laws in about half of the Muslim-majority countries are as restrictive as the bills pushed forth in those southern U.S. states, in many others the law books are more lenient, says Leila Hessini. She has written extensively on the topic and serves as vice president at the Global Fund for Women, which supports women-led groups working toward gender equality in the United States and around the world.
Tellingly, Hessini says, “There is not the same level of fervor, violence and attacks on women and providers as in the U.S. — we’re not seeing right now in the Middle East and North Africa a desire to make laws more punitive and more restrictive for women who need abortions and providers. We are seeing that in the U.S.”
Sherine Hamdy, a professor of Muslim bioethics at the University of California, Irvine, notes that for Muslim women, the U.S. anti-abortion trends are worrying not only because they harm women’s rights to reproductive agency, but also because they diminish religious freedoms, since Muslim religious ethics make a strong case for women’s well-being taking priority over that of the fetus.
No total ban
No country in the Middle East bans abortions altogether, according to the United Nations and World Health Organization data. In about half of the countries (including Iran, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Iraq), abortions are only allowed when a woman’s life is in danger but not in any other case — not even for rape or incest, just like in Alabama.
But the laws in 10 other Muslim-majority countries allow abortions in more cases than the anti-abortion legislation cropping up in the United States.
Tunisia and Turkey have by far the most progressive laws among Muslim states in the region. Abortions in these two countries are fully legal in the first trimester and provided free of charge in public health facilities upon a woman’s request — officially, at least.
Tunisia reformed its abortion law in 1973, making it unique in the region in that spousal consent is not required and women do not have to be married to get an abortion.
Since 1983, abortions have been legal upon request in Turkey until 10 weeks; after that, abortion is still legal if the mother’s life is at risk, if her physical or mental health is in danger, or if her pregnancy involves fetal abnormalities.
In eight other countries, abortions are very restrictive but are allowed not only in cases when the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life — like in Alabama — but also to preserve her physical and mental health. This is the case in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Neither Alabama nor Missouri, which passed its own anti-abortion law last Friday, make exceptions for rape and incest. Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria, Bahrain and Morocco do.
Whether the fetus has a chance of survival isn’t a consideration in some of the bills making their way through some U.S. states, either. But it is in the laws of Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, where fetal impairment is grounds for legal abortion.
In Bahrain, abortions are also available upon request and allowed under broad conditions — when a mother or fetus’ life is at risk; when her health, physical or mental, is at stake due to economic or social reasons; and because of rape or incest — when a panel of doctors authorizes it.
In both the West Bank and Gaza, the laws are derived from the Jordanian penal code of 1960, which criminalizes abortion. However, a 2006 law presented before the Palestinian Parliament allowed abortions in cases where there was a risk to the woman's life and health.
In Jordan itself, the public health law passed in 1971 allowed abortion for mental health reasons — a revolutionary step in a region where mental health has not always been understood as a priority.
In 1981, Kuwait followed suit and became the first Gulf state to reform its law, allowing a woman’s physical and mental health to be taken into consideration in allowing abortions, as well as the fetus’ health.
Qatar changed its law in 1983 to allow abortions in case of harm to the woman’s health or fetal impairment, while Algeria’s law was reformed in 1985 to include mental health reasons as well.
In practice, however, women’s access to safe abortions remains an enormous challenge in virtually all countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Many resort to illegal and unsafe abortions that endanger their lives, according to the World Health Organization, which says 11 percent of maternal deaths in the region are caused by complications from clandestine abortions. Even in countries where the law allows abortions, it often remains so only theoretically, while many women — particularly those from poorer economic backgrounds — suffer the consequences.
Even in Tunisia, where abortions are fully legal and widely available in the first trimester, a Tunisian doctor involved with abortion access told Haaretz that in practice, the personal biases of conservative physicians sometimes have more influence than the law.
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as society has become more conservative over the past decade, so have some of the public sector providers.
“The law hasn’t changed, but the Health Ministry covers its eyes and looks the other way” as midwives sometimes try to stigmatize women seeking abortions — particularly if they are unmarried — the doctor said. “They’ll try to scare her and push her to go and have more medical tests, send her to more lab testing, tell her it’s haram[forbidden].”
This is not common, she emphasized, as abortion remains safe, free and legal without restrictions in most of the country, although this is especially true for women who can afford to visit private clinics.
Hamdy explains that while there has been a long history of Muslim ethicists making allowances for abortions under particular circumstances, access to abortion has not always been available in Muslim-majority countries — partly because many countries have inherited colonial bans on abortion, and partly because, more recently, the rise of religious conservatism globally has shifted the discourse in Muslim-majority countries as well.
As part of the conservative shift to the right in the United States, many of the same states that are passing anti-abortion laws also passed anti-Sharia laws in recent years.
In 2014, for example, Alabama became the seventh U.S. state to pass a law banning civil courts from considering “foreign law” in their rulings. In fact, the same person who drafted Alabama’s anti-abortion bill — an activist named Eric Johnston who founded the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition— also drafted its anti-Sharia law in 2014, arguing that “Sharia law violates women's rights.”
But Sharia, it turns out, approaches abortions in a way that may partially explain why laws in the Middle East are sometime more permissive than those in states influenced by current interpretations of Christianity, which preach that “life begins at conception.”
Islam doesn’t have a centralized body to rule on religious law and there are various schools of thought. However, there is general consensus that a woman’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus, and that abortion is allowed until the fetus reaches ensoulment (when the fetus gains a soul) — described as occurring between 40 to 120 days after conception, depending on the school of thought.
The majority of scholars agree on the 120-day period for ensoulment, Hamdy confirms, based on the hadith: “Every one of you is collected in the womb of his mother for the first 40 days, and then he becomes a clot for another 40 days, and then a piece of flesh for another 40 days. Then Allah sends an angel to breathe the soul into his body” (Hadith 4:549).
Saudi Arabia, which has a notoriously poor record on women’s rights, is more permissive than the bill put forth in anti-Sharia Alabama. And in a number of countries — including Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia — contemporary religious rulings support abortion in cases of rape, fetal impairment and risk to the woman’s life and health.
But religious rulings are not always reflected in national laws, partly due to the colonial legacy. In Egypt, for instance, abortion laws are extremely restrictive, as a holdover from the Napoleonic Code. In 1998, in response to the mass rapes of women in Bosnia, the country’s former grand mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) saying that women who have been raped must have access to abortion. He also approved a draft bill in 2004 that would permit abortion in cases of rape (although the bill failed to pass).
In Iran, however, religious forces blocked the liberalization of abortions, which have been illegal since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. When the Iranian parliament passed a measure in 2005 allowing abortions within the first four months of pregnancy in cases of genetic disorders that would result in economic burden, the measure was blocked by the Iranian Guardian Council of the Constitution.
Abortions are a source of debate and disagreement, but Hessini, whose Global Fund for Women supports activists in many Middle Eastern countries, says that “in general, Middle Eastern countries don’t focus on fetal rights and personhood as distinct from the rights of the pregnant woman who is carrying the embryo/fetus, and [many] do allow for rape, incest and other indications that are nonexistent in the proposed U.S. bills.”
What she hears on the ground, she says, are “much more nuanced conversations around abortion than the kinds of conversations that are really grounded in a deep disrespect for women and providers that we’re seeing in the U.S., a punitive and cruel approach to the basic needs that women have.”
The bill proposed in Alabama would jail abortion providers for up to 99 years; performing an abortion would be a Class A felony — a much higher class than for incest or sexual abuse. Even in the most restrictive Middle Eastern countries, Hessini says, punishments are not nearly as bad as what Alabama is recommending. In Saudi Arabia, an abortion provider can be imprisoned for up to six months; in Iran, the maximum sentence is five years.
For now, abortions remain legal in all 50 U.S. states and are at an all-time low, with a 25 percent decline between 2008 and 2014 due to increased access to contraception, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Most Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries lag far behind, but incremental change is taking place.
What worries experts and activists is that the United States is going in the opposite direction. “It’s an anomaly in terms of where the world is going,” Hessini concludes.