Islam, abortion, and the Stupak Amendment
The national health care debate has taken on crystalline characteristics, refracting the light of American political tensions in a dozen different directions. Partisans of class, race, and immigration politics have been galvanized by myriad issues—real or imagined—raised by the prospect of reform. To that loaded list we can now add gender: the House passage of the Stupak Amendment, which imposes strict requirements on abortions offered through a proposed government-run and subsidized insurance, has rankled feminists and buoyed anti-abortion advocates.
Opposition to abortion is a well-known tenet of the Catholic Church, which has 46 million adult adherents in the U.S.—the country’s largest religious minority. But what about the religious stance held by one of the country’s smallest religious minorities—Muslims?
It was the “forceful lobbying” of Catholic bishops, who insisted on strong abortion limits as a prerequisite for their support for the House health care reform bill, that enabled the amendment’s passage.
A brief word on Islam: though Muslims number only three to seven million in the U.S., the worldwide Muslim population stands at 1.5 billion people—or a quarter of humanity.
Sunni Islam, which comprises about 90 percent of the Muslim world, has no official religious organizational structure, whereas the main school of Shi’ism does possess a religious hierarchy but no single line of leadership. Despite the similarity in names, The Nation of Islam, founded in the U.S. in 1930 and most notably led by black nationalist leader Elijah Muhammad, is not generally considered by Sunni or Shia Muslims to be a part of Islam.
The two key sources of authority in Islam for both Sunni and Shi’a are the Qur’an (believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century) and the Hadith (a collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad). Neither source speaks definitely to the issue of abortion per se.
The value of human life is certainly emphasized in the Qur’an and Hadith, in both word and spirit. Verse 5:32, for example, decrees that if anyone takes an innocent life, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and if anyone saves an innocent life, it is as if he has saved all mankind. And Verse 17:31 warns Muslims not to kill their children in response to “fear of want”—a reference to a nomadic tribal practice of killing female infants in hard times, which was explicitly banned by Mohammad.
The problem, of course, is that this does not address the question of when life actually begins. This is elliptically addressed in Verses 22:5 and 23:12-14, which describe an organic, developing process. The former Verse reads in part, “We [meaning God and His angels] created you from dust, then from a drop of fluid, then a clinging form, then a lump of flesh, both shaped and unshaped…”
As a result, broadly speaking, the Muslim position is that conception is not the point at which God breathes into the soul. While there is no entirely definitive view on the matter, some Muslim jurists have postulated that an embryo is not imbued with a soul anywhere from 40 to 120 days after conception. The famous Muslim scholar al-Ghazzali adopted the view that abortion at any time is a sin, but one of “degrees,” with the gravity of the sin heightening the later it is performed.
Regardless of their differences, most Islamic religious scholars from early on have agreed that abortion is permissible if a mother’s life is in danger, or if the fetus suffers from serious defect.
Tellingly, there is strong support for contraception within Islamic tradition. The Hadith notes that Muhammad approved of birth control within marriage via withdrawal, as did prominent early Muslim jurists. Contraception is accepted in most Muslim countries, including Iran, where the government distributes condoms. This seems to follow from the view on “ensoulment”: if conception is not the point at which God breathes life into the embryo, then there is nothing inherently wrong with prohibiting conception.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, believes that it is impossible to know when a soul has entered the embryo—and that, consequently, ensoulment may indeed occur at or shortly after conception. It is this core difference that seems to account for the divergent views held by Muslims and Catholics on both contraception and abortion.
Despite these differences, would the Stupak Amendment have dissipated into thin air if, in some parallel universe, Muslim scholars and not Catholic bishops held sway over anti-abortion Democrats? Given that these are largely differences of degree, probably not.