The furore created by the reversing of Roe v. Wade was a US specific debate. Takings sides, as many Muslims did, has resulted in an obscuring of Islam and the loss of the chance to set an Islamic agenda argues Nargess Moballeghi.
The divisive furore over the abortion debate in the United States and the overturning of Roe vs Wade became an international talking point that spilled into the Muslim world, especially in the West. But why did Muslims fall for the framing of a very particular – and purely American issue – and take a side from within the debate, rather than rise above it to give a much-needed critique of the overarching problems the abortion debate highlighted – about socio-political ethics and limitations in the USA and beyond?
What was Roe vs Wade?
In 1973, the Supreme Court in the United States ruled on the now infamous Roe v Wade lawsuit.
Bought by Jane Roe, an unmarried pregnant woman in Texas, who argued the State’s abortion laws infringed her right to marital, familial, and sexual privacy; and that the right to an abortion was absolute.
The State argued that a foetus is a “person” from the time of conception and must be protected.
At the time, abortion was illegal in Texas unless it was done to save the mother’s life. To get an abortion was a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Court split the argument down the middle. It ruled that abortion was a privacy right and questioned the notion that a foetus is a “person” at conception. But it did not agree the right to an abortion is absolute. So, it created a framework, dividing pregnancy into three 12-week trimesters:
- During a pregnant person’s first trimester, the Court held, a state cannot regulate abortion.
- During the second trimester, the state may regulate abortion.
- During the third trimester of pregnancy, the state’s interest in protecting the potential human life outweighs the right to privacy. As a result, the state may prohibit abortions unless an abortion is necessary to save the life or health of the pregnant person.
A controversial overturning
In the decades since Roe vs Wade, the politicisation of abortion rights in the USA intensified.
It was a fixture in presidential debates and across the nation, and became a symbol of the fault lines between the left and right in American politics; between the “liberal pro-choicers” and “conservative pro-lifers” anchored in Evangelical Christian ideology, and bolstered by Republican talking points.
By the time Donald Trump became president, the fault lines that were once just the internal nuance of “Superpower USA” had become deep fractures for the world to see.
At a time of the cultural and political crumbling of the “West” – highlighted by the divisions between mainstream liberal tropes and the more obviously rabid right-wing “counter attacks” – the abortion debate took on a new life and meaning and expanded well beyond the borders of the USA. Millions of people across the world who had probably never heard of Roe vs Wade before or understood the context and complexities of the court case, held passionate and bold positions on the issue.
These positions were rooted in either “camp” of the crumbling status quo. Left or Right. Choose a side.
Within this context, Roe vs Wade was overturned on June 24th 2022. Trump took credit. It was his Supreme Court appointees that swung it.
How Muslims participated in the debate
Muslims – particularly in the Western world – seemed to mirror the passionate and polarised debate taking place in the USA, falling in to one or other of the two camps.
Many centres and educational establishments in the United States and Europe put out basic fact sheets about “Islam’s position” on abortion, without any nuance or context to the socio-political context of the debate unfolding. Without this context, the implication they were pushing was clear – “Islam is against abortion and more in line with the pro-life camp”
Many Muslims online focused on criticising the liberal approach to sex, relationships and abortion in the West, without critiquing the flaws in the pro-life camp. Whether purposeful or inadvertent, on this issue, they were allies.
On the other side, many Muslims, especially from the younger generation, furiously defended “women’s rights” and liberal ideals about the right to abortion.
Both were, at least in part, wrong.
The problem with Absolutism
Unlike the Catholic Church and most of the Evangelical community in the United States, who believe all form of abortion is wrong because life begins at the moment of conception, Islamic rulings reject absolutist stances on abortion.
Islam is not absolutely pro-abortion, nor does it criminalise all forms of abortion.
And beyond that, jurisprudential (fiqh) rulings on right and wrong, permissible and forbidden, are so immensely diverse that no individual Muslim can declare that the ruling they follow is universally applicable.
Taking that in to consideration, what are, broadly speaking, the general rules of abortion in Islam?
By 120 days from conception, the scholars of all Islamic schools of thought agree that ensoulment has taken place. Between 40 and 120 days from conception, the four Sunni madhabs have differing opinions, even within their own ranks, about until when and for what reason a woman can have an abortion. Some give unconditional permission to abort until 40 days, some have conditions but no time period, others say abortion without a “valid reason” is disapproved of (makruh), but not forbidden (haram).
The Shia school of thought is seen generally more restrictive when it comes to abortion rulings, but even there, nuance and individual circumstances can completely change the application of a ruling.
This isn’t about blanket, one-size-fits all state-legislated law. Even the ruling of Ayatollah Sistani, who is seen as a more conservative Shia religious leader states abortion up to four months into pregnancy is permissible “if the continuation of the pregnancy would considerably harm her health or put her in an unbearable difficulty”.
Who measures unbearable difficulty; a concept that covers emotional, mental and physical distress? This is a private decision. Islam enshrined the right to a private life centuries before the United States Supreme Court even existed.
In fact, it is the presence of this debate — and the breadth of accepted and unproblematised nuance among different schools of thought — that makes it so different from the polarizing forces of the U.S. culture wars that has driven the abortion debate in the USA to the brink of absolutism
The revocation of Roe Vs Wade bought about the risk of rules that went against even the strictest Islamic rulings on abortion. For example, within 48 hours several states reverted back to laws that banned abortion “without exception of the mother’s health”.
As American-Muslim scholar and author Rudolph Ware stated online at the time “make no mistake about it; the new abortion restrictions enacted in many US states directly infringe upon the religious freedom of Muslims to live by our understandings of religious law. Viewed from the standpoint of Islamic thought, the view that life begins at conception (a tenet of the anti-choice movement) is rooted in a completely flawed evangelical theology that leads directly to infringements on the rights of women in Islam. There are literally countless scenarios in which a woman’s right to an abortion would be upheld in Islamic jurisprudence, which will now be preclosed by more restrictive laws. These differ somewhat from school to school, which is another powerful argument why Muslims should not want SCOTUS writing fatwas for us.”
Or as the American born Shafi’i mufti, Shaykh Musa Furber wrote: “I cannot fathom how a Muslim living under secular law who aspires to follow the Shari ah could celebrate replacing secular legislation that was more permissive than what the Shariah allows…to a legislation that is more restrictive than the Shari’ah allows.”
Muslims shouldn’t have taken a side
So if we were not to celebrate the revocation of Roe Vs Wade, were we supposed to condemn it? Which side should we have taken?
Muslims do not need to become advocates for the foundational position on either side of a “debate” when neither are in line with an Islamic ethos on abortion.
Islamic law has a richer history and body of work than the USA and has more diversity and more to say on the issue. We do not need to oversimplify the richness of our religion to fit in to a box, to be one side or the other of a problematic debate.
Instead we should speak to the paradigm problem of left and right, and give solutions – anchored in an Islamic ethos – that could be helpful for everyone, and not just on abortion rights.
It is to understand the context of the problematic debate and how a society like the United States ended up in this paradox. It is to take the opportunity not to be boxed into a debate but show people how to think outside of the box.
To speak to hypocrisies on both sides.
The overturning of Roe vs Wade came about because of a political lobby that warped one specific position in a religion – in isolation – and implemented it to an entire population that is non-religious. A society that actively promotes sexuality and sexual ‘freedom’ in a secular setting. It is rank hypocrisy to then come – within that context – and shove one specific religious position on one group – in this case women. It is oppressive. It is dangerous. It is wrong. And that includes from an Islamic perspective. Especially because it criminalises women for abortion, a concept that is completely antithetical to the Islamic approach – there is no physical punishment or jail time if a Muslim woman has an abortion outside of the religious rules she subscribes to. She has spiritual and physical autonomy.
In fact, if it were Muslims behaving like the USA, the same people who have advocated this abortion ban would have called it what it is – barbaric religious extremism and probably started a war.
Islamophobia – neither side is your friend.
And yet the hypocrisies of the liberal left that fought back against the pro-life movement could be most clearly seen through the lens of Muslims and Islamophobia despite the debate being a solely American issue.
Roe vs Wade was a solely American issue, but yet “America’s Taliban really hates women and minorities,” tweeted Newsweek editor Naveed Jamali. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, started referring to Texas lawmakers as the “American Taliban.” Meanwhile, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah gave it his own comedic twist: “All across the country, women in places like Missouri or even Texas will have the same abortion rights as women under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Think about it. We just evacuated people out of Afghanistan, and now we are going to evacuate them out of Tennessee?” In fact, In September 2021 when Texas banned abortion for all women regardless of circumstances after six weeks of pregnancy, hashtags such as #ShariaLawInTexas and #TexasTaliban were trending.
During the abortion debate #ShariaSupremeCourt was trending. Ironically, unlike in Texas, abortion is legal in Afghanistan if the mother’s life is in danger. Under a true “Supreme Sharia Court”, an outright ban on abortion would never be considered.
Facts, of course, do not matter. And the implication is clear; the Muslim world is so regressive on women’s rights and reproductive health that any regression in women’s rights in the West means they are falling into the ‘abyss’ of Islam. This is a trope that liberal left pushes, and that benefits the racist right. So why would Muslims want to pander or ally with either? Especially when, it is these exact tropes about “backwards Islam” and “women’s rights” leads to war. Don’t forget George Bush was hailing the “liberation” of Iraqi and Afghan women as a direct consequence of the wars the USA waged in those countries and said the wars will continue to fight for women’s freedom.
An empowered alternative Muslim solution
Because of the pressure Muslims are under from society as a whole they tend to react on the back foot; trying to find acceptance or prove themselves in spaces they have been told are more ‘free’ than their own. Or alternatively, they react by defending positions they think are in line with Islam, even though they are wrong (like the abortion ban).
Both ways are reactive rather than proactive, and reflect a poor position in the dialogue. In fact Muslim leadership seeming to endorse the abortion ban, presents particular risks to the young Muslim community, especially girls, who may react by becoming more susceptible to attractive and flawed liberal tropes. The liberal left promotes the idea that people have absolute autonomy and freedom to choose. It is an intoxicating ideal. And one that is particularly appealing when the “counter argument” is often reactionary, flawed and misplaced.
Yet, Islam too, says, that anyone can, in fact, chose to do anything they want. The difference between the liberal position and Islam is that foundationally, in the liberal position, peace and progress is attained by everyone and anyone doing anything they want at any time.
Islam says everyone can chose to do anything. BUT, there will be reverberations and consequences, personally and societally. And so it gives guidelines to what will constitute a peaceful and progressive environment. Islam is a way of life and a warning as to the consequences of deciding not to follow its guidelines and disrupting internal (personal) and external (societal) equilibrium. It is from that perspective that we should have engaged with this issue.
An empowered Muslim position on the abortion debate would have been to provide a clear and superior solution-oriented voice, not an inferior or implicit endorsement that advocates either side within a flawed paradigm.
Nargess Moballeghi is a multi-platform Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker, with over 15 years work experience in international news and production including at management level. She has extensive expertise and experience working in the Middle East and Europe as a senior news presenter and correspondent. She currently focuses on producing international long-form documentaries, as well as production of programming series, online content and marketing videos.