Dear Dr. Abou El Fadl,
I am writing to ask you for your advice. I have read several of your books and I highly respect your opinion. I would like to know your opinion on the permissibility of abortions in Islam. Last week, I took a pregnancy test because I suspected that I might be pregnant. It turned out to be negative. I took one today and it was positive. So I am guessing that I have only been pregnant for three weeks if not less (I have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow to find out). While we always wanted to have children, my husband and I feel that now isn't the right time. My husband has been working for two years and his salary is quite low. I graduated from school last May and unfortunately I haven't been able to find a permanent job yet because of the economy. I feel that a baby right now might ruin my career prospects and I don't feel that we can afford one. We live in New York City and as you know, it is very expensive. In addition, we don't have any family members living next to us. I would at least want a permanent job and some savings in our bank account before we have a baby. Of course, at the same time, I still want to have children at some point in our lives and I don't want to do anything that is morally and Islamically wrong. I was wondering if it is permissible to abort a fetus before 40 days of pregnancy, and alternatively before 120 days of pregnancy. The reason I am asking about both 40 days and 120 days is because one of the advisors I talked to on the phone told me that many clinics refuse to perform an abortion before the first 6 weeks of pregnancy (or 42 days) because they need to see something there to perform an abortion. That is problematic for me because I feel that the longer I wait, the more haram it is. Plus 6 weeks is 2 days passed the 40 day mark. I would of course not consider an abortion whatsoever beyond 6 weeks but I was wondering what my options are, Islamically, for before 6 weeks.
I would really appreciate your help and advice as soon as possible. I feel very conflicted and I'm not sure what I should do.
Thank you for your help,
(Name withheld for privacy)
Thank you for your message. I apologize for the delay in responding to you. I always feel that questions such as yours impose a heavy moral and ethical obligation and so I like to take some time to worship and ask God for guidance.
The clearest Qur’anic command on this issue is in 2:228—If they believe in God and the Final Day, it is not permissible for them to suppress what God has created in their wombs. On the basis of this verse, among other evidence, most Muslim scholars concluded that abortion is unlawful except in some very narrow exceptions. A clear majority of the scholars considered abortion to be a destruction of life and a serious offense against life, and therefore, a major sin.
Some sages or scholars, however, were of the opinion that abortion is permissible up to a certain point—some arguing that abortion is permissible up to 40 or 42 days (this is the position of some Shafi’i jurists) or up to 120 days (the position of some Shafi’i and Hanafi jurists). But most of the jurists who argued for the permissibility of abortion (whether under the 40, 42, or 120 day rule) also contended that unless justified by a health necessity, abortions are reprehensible or disfavored (makruh).
I want to stress that the crux of the matter for the jurists who did allow abortion centered around the issue of when or at what point the embryo becomes a human being or is endowed with a soul. Different jurists relied on or were persuaded by different kinds of evidence, but fundamentally, it is this belief about when an embryo or fetus becomes a human being—or can be said to possess life that justified the different time limits (whether 40, 42, or 120 days).
I must tell you that, personally, I am not persuaded that there is any clear yardstick or solid basis upon which one can confidently conclude that life begins after 40 or 42 or 120 days. It seems to me that once conceived an embryo, fetus, or whatever it is at a particular stage development, enjoys a right to life—-or more precisely, a right to the potential or opportunity of life, and that this right should not be interfered with unless there is a compelling necessity to do so. It does seem to me that the majority position banning abortions (except in a set of limited circumstances) is better supported and is more consistent with the Qur’an and Sunna and Islamic ethics.
There are some jurisprudential precedents in favor of the permissibility of terminating a pregnancy in cases of hardship that did not rise to the level of health necessity as long as the termination took place within the first 120 days (for instance, in cases of rape, pregnancy of minors etc.). In a sense, the relevant issue for you is whether poverty, financial need, or career pressures can constitute such a hardship.
In my view, and according to most jurists, abortions under these circumstances still would be unjustified or unlawful. As I am sure you know, God instructs us not to kill our children out of fear of poverty. We ought to pray that God help us provide for our families and to present us with whatever is best. God teaches us to accept God’s judgment in our lives with a level of serene humility, while reminding us that we may want something very badly but ultimately God knows what in fact prove to be in our interest or against it. This is why God says: you may dislike something intensely but God makes it a great source of goodness and blessing in your life.
All matters involving rizq or a person’s worldly gains and income are really in the hands of God—we can do only our best—-we do not control the ultimate results. So after expending the best effort, we can only pray that Allah present us with whatever is the best for us on this earth and the Hereafter.
I fully appreciate your position-—it is very hard, especially for a woman when she is trying to pursue a career or when families need double incomes to get by, for there to be an unplanned pregnancy. An unexpected pregnancy poses some truly challenging circumstances. Nevertheless, what I want to tell you is that I have seen children come to this world after their parents prayed, planned, and celebrated their birth only for these children to turn out to be a traumatic disaster upon the lives of their families. I have also seen children come to this world unplanned, burdensome, and unwelcome only to turn out to be the greatest blessing for their parents and family.
My point is that I do not take the hardship and disruption upon your life lightly but when I study the Qur’anic commands, the tradition of the Prophet and the jurisprudential tradition, I do not feel comfortable advising you that it is Islamically permissible to terminate your pregnancy. In my view, we will never really know at what point life begins or a soul enters the body. However, I do not think this is the relevant point or that is the issue upon which permissibility ought to depend. As to poverty, financial need, and career considerations, these are just some of the many contingencies and unknowns that confront us in our lives, and it is with these contingencies that our faith in God and our relationship with Allah matters the most. In the end, we do what our conscience dictates and so I advise you to reflect upon what I’ve written and that you pray, supplicate, and ask God for guidance. May Allah guide you to what is blessed, divine, and beautiful, and may Allah shroud you and your family in peace. God is the All-Knowing and it is God who knows best.
Al salamu alaykum,
Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl