Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Texas “heartbeat law” banning abortion after six weeks has prompted comparisons of Texas evangelicals to Afghanistan’s Taliban. There is a resemblance globally of religious-Right movements on women’s issues, since religious conservatism is usually patriarchal and aims at controlling women. If, however, the comparison is between Christianity and Islam in general, the situation is far more complex.
Gilla K. Shapiro, writing in Health Policy and Planning, found that ten Muslim-majority countries out of 47 surveyed permit abortion on demand. These are Albania, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Another two, Burkina Faso and Guinea, allow abortion in cases of incest and rape, which the Texas law does not, and Sudan allows it in case of rape.
Several other Muslim-majority states allow abortion where the mother’s physical or mental health would be impaired, not just if her life was endangered. The Texas law speaks of a “medical emergency,” but I don’t believe mere detraction from physical or mental health is intended by its framers to allow an abortion. For instance, let us say a woman’s pregnancy has complications that would stop her from taking care of her existing children, or would stop her from practicing her profession or helping the family earn a living. That would be damage to her physical health. It would not justify an abortion in Texas, I’m quite sure, but it may well in those Muslim countries that guard women’s health.
Even Saudi Arabia permits abortion where the mother’s health is in danger, as do all but 18 of the 47 nations Shapiro surveyed.
So implying that the Texas Republican Party is like a Muslim party is not fair to Muslims. It is more restrictive of women’s rights than most Muslim-majority countries. Since 43 U.S. states have some restrictions on abortion, in fact, there are more Muslim-majority countries with abortion on demand than there are U.S. states.
The old saws of U.S. exceptionalism require Americans to think they are always more advanced than Muslims societies, which they code as backward. But in fact the U.S. is more religious and more bound by religious strictures in practice than some Muslim-majority countries. A poll back in the 1980s showed that 20 percent of Tunisians said they were not religious at time when only 9 percent of Americans did. It is mainly American Christianity that has caused prostitution to be made illegal everywhere but a couple of counties in Nevada, but it is legal in Senegal, Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia, all Muslim-majority countries. Many Muslims practice a fundamentalist, puritanical form of Islam, but not all do and not all governments favor it.
By the way, calling the Texas law a “heartbeat law” is a misnomer since the fetus does not have heart valves at six weeks and the noise heard during an ultrasound exam at that stage is from the ultrasound machine, though it may pick up an electrical signal from the fetus. There is no heart to beat.
In medieval Islam, the Hanafi school, which predominates in Turkey and much of Asia, permitted abortion up until 3 months. Some Shafi’is, the school favored in Lower Egypt, also allowed it that late. Let me underline this. A significant proportion of medieval Muslim jurists favored rules for abortion that were more permissive than today’s law in Texas.
In premodern times people in many cultures allowed abortion until the “quickening,” i.e. until the mother felt the fetus stirring, and this same criterion was common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. The doctrine of a blastocyte being a person is a relatively recent innovation in theology and depends on modern medicine, which is typically misused by the theologians.
Shapiro did a comparative survey of abortion laws in 47 Muslim-majority countries. She identifies 7 levels of abortion rights. The least permissive are laws that only make an exception for a danger to the life of the mother. The Texas law resembles those in 18 Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, which only allow this exception.
That is, only 18 of 47 Muslim-majority countries have abortion laws today as restrictive as that in Texas.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First, for all the boasting among American supporters of the Afghanistan War about the way it upheld women’s rights, abortion was outlawed by the American-established government of Afghanistan for the past 20 years before the Taliban came back into power. The same thing is true of the American-established government of Iraq. So much for the Bush Wars as crusades for women’s emancipation. Is it an accident that George W. Bush had been governor of Texas before becoming president?
It should also be noted that Lebanon’s restrictive law banning most abortions except where the mother’s life is in danger reflects the influence of the Maronite Church, which is a uniate church in communion with Roman Catholicism. Shiite law allows abortion in the case of fetal impairment, as well.
In Europe, Malta, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Poland, the Vatican, Monaco and Andorra ban or severely restrict abortion. Ireland only allowed some abortions in a 2018 referendum, and most of the subsequent some 6,000 terminations have been before the passage of 12 weeks. These countries have these laws because of the stance of the Roman Catholic Church and because secular majorities have not challenged them as has happened in many European Catholic-majority countries.
This issue is not along a Christian-Muslim or East-West axis.