Roe v. Wade – What do American Muslims think about abortion?

Source: (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Abortion and reproductive rights are a key issue on the U.S political scene especially during election cycles, where they can be the determining factor for many single-issue voters. In early May 2022, a report was leaked by Politico (a U.S political journalism company) detailing the US Supreme Court justices opinion about banishing abortion1. The draft opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito stated that he, along with Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch “hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled […] it is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elective representatives”2. All five of the justices voting in favour of overturning Roe vs Wade were appointed by Republican presidents, and four of five are conservative Catholics3.

If enacted by the U.S Supreme Court, this opinion would overturn the landmark Roe vs Wade case of 1973 which instated the constitutional right to abortion in the U.S. This law protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction4. If reversed, abortion would no longer be deemed a constitutional right and instead would become the right of individual U.S states to legislate. Currently, twelve US states (Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming) have “trigger laws” which will immediately criminalise or ban abortion in the case of “Roe” being overturned. 

Views of U.S Muslim Activists and Islamic Scholars

Aliza Kazmi, the co-executive director of HEART (a national U.S organisation that focuses on sex education in the Muslim community and advancing reproductive justice) stated that reproductive access and choice – including safe access to abortion and after care – is already severely limited, or even non-existent for many in the US, particularly people of low-incomes and people of colour: 

“We know that many Muslim women are already being pushed away given how health inequities impeding abortion access exist and persist including due to Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, homophobia, transphobia, heteropatriarchy, Christian supremacy, etc. within the provision of health services”4

Kazmi further added that if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, this narrowing of access to abortions would be devastating for a majority of people in the U.S5.

Sahar Pirzada, the West Coast programming and advocacy manager at HEART, argued that overturning Roe v. Wade would not only impact Muslim women’s reproductive rights, but also the rights “of all Muslims who have reproductive lives – all Muslims with uteruses”6. Ultimately, this decision will restrict “the religious freedom of Muslims given that Islam makes space for reproductive rights”7.

In December 2021, seven Muslim organisations (Muslim Advocates, KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, HEART, American Muslim Bar Association, Muslim Wellness Foundation, American Muslim Health Professionals, and Muslim Public Affairs Council) published a letter titled: “Why Muslims Must Oppose The Abortion Ban” in which they call for Muslim’s to oppose the ban on abortion. They explain their opposition on the ground that the ban affects the U.S Constitution’s protection of religious diversity and threatens the Islamic principle of honouring religious diversity. According to the letter, it means that you can be a Muslim who is religiously opposed to abortion and nevertheless think that a state should not impose only this view on everyone living within the state8. Additionally, the argument in the letter is that a secular state should resist enacting laws based solely on the beliefs of one religion9. As the letter states, there is a need “to insist that a state should not select one religious view (even if it is one we happen to hold ourselves) and force it on the very diverse population of the United States”10.

Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and specialist in comparative Islamic and US constitutional law) expressed similar concerns about the state adopting one conservative view on abortion and imposing it on the whole American population : 

I, and many women of religious minorities who don’t happen to agree with the restrictive Christian view that life begins at conception, are concerned that the Christian Right is trying to use the legislative power of democracy to impose their view of abortion on everyone else11.

Quraishi-Landes also stressed that the rules of Islamic jurisprudence are not the only thing to consider in a Sharia worldview. She explains that siyasa – the law of the ruler/state – is not based on scriptural interpretation, but rather on the public good, “maslaha amma”12. A state law which will outlaw abortion, she argues, does not serve the public good because it can cause serious harm to many people, for example women whose lives are at risk from continuing with pregnancy, botched home abortions etc. She concludes that Muslims should not support the ban, as doing so “would be to support the legislation of one’s individual religious views on others, and I believe that Muslim history shows that Muslims are better than that”13.

However, this stance is not accepted by all activists and scholars. Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor in the department of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky argued in December 2021 that Muslims should not be publicly behind either argument (pro-choice or anti-abortion). According to Bagby “the Islamic view is in the middle, and we should stick to it”14. Bagby further stated that “we don’t need to be cheering on the ‘women have a right to their body’, as if it’s an absolute right, and we don’t need to be on the right of the pro-life people, because their intentions are to make abortions illegal across the board in all situations”15. Citing a non-written consensus made by the Fiqh Council in North America (an association of Islamic Scholars), which claims abortion should only be allowed up to 120 days, (basing it on a hadith about when ensoulment occurs), Bagby argues that “before that [120 days] it’s a life, after that, it becomes a human and killing it is the same or approximate to the killing of a human. I don’t think we should give that up”16.

Looking at more theological perspectives, there are also diverse stances pertaining to abortion, particularly amongst the four primary Sunni Schools: Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali. Positions within and between these schools are variable and whether abortion is permitted depends on the particular circumstances and stage of gestational development, as the table below shows17:

Diversity of Laws across Sunni schools. (Source: Gilla Shapiro, Research Coordinator at St Michael’s Hospital Toronto)

Shiites reject the four Sunni schools and most contemporary Shiite jurists do not believe abortion is permissible at any point. The only exception is on the grounds of fetal or maternal conditions that may bring extreme difficulties to the mother or family. Abortion in this instance may only occur before four months18.

How do everyday Muslims view abortion? The statistics

In March 2022, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) set out to explore the following question, in relation to debates about reproductive rights and abortion in the U.S: 

“How do Muslims, alongside other American faith, and non-faith communities, view the legality of abortion, not its morality?”19.

To answer this, they asked, through means of polling, the following four sub-questions:

Do you think abortion should be…

  • Legal in all cases
  • Legal in most cases
  • Illegal in most cases 
  • Illegal in all cases20

As shown in Figure 1 below, the majority of Muslims (56%), alongside Jews (75%), Catholics (55%) and those identifying as non-affiliated (85%) believe that abortion should be legal. Breaking down this statistic “in favour of abortion being legal” further, the ISPU show that of the 56% of Muslims who are in favour, 25% believe abortion should be legal in all cases, with 32% believing it should only be legal in most. This is similar those who are Catholic, with 17% of the 55% believing abortion should be legal in all cases, and 39% in favour of abortion being legal in most. Of the 42% of Muslims who are not in favour of abortion, only a small minority (16%) believe it should be illegal in all cases, and 26% believe it should be illegal in most21

Figure 1. Source: ISPU

The two highest groups of US citizens who voted in the poll, who are in favour of legalised abortion are Jewish 75% and non-affiliated (85%). Within the Jewish pollers, 37% of this percentage holding the view abortion should be legal in all cases. For the non-affiliated, more than half of the 85% believe abortion should be legal in all cases, with 38% agreeing to legalise it in most22

On the other hand, the majority of Protestants (54%) are of the opinion that abortion should be illegal in all (20%) or most (35%) cases. Those who are White Evangelical who partook in the polling, had the highest anti-abortion stance with three-quarters of pollers believing that abortion should be illegal in all (37%) or most (43%) cases23

Looking further at these statistics, the ISPU breaks down these percentages by gender, race and ethnicity. Within Muslim communities, the ISPU found that men and women are similar in their view that abortion should be legal, with 61% of women and 53% of men being in favour24. A relatively small number of U.S. Muslims believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, with Muslim men (19%) being more likely to hold this view than Muslim women (11%). 

According to the ISPU statistics, Younger Muslims are not more likely that older Muslims to hold the view abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with 60% of 18-29 year olds, 56% of 30-49 year olds, and 52% of 50+ holding this view. However, Muslims aged 18-29 (27%) and 20-49 (27%), were more likely than Muslims 50+ (15%) to hold the view abortion should be legal in all cases25. In comparison to the general public, younger Muslims (18-29) were also more likely to support the legality of abortion in all or most cases (79%), with four in ten believing it should be legal in all cases (39%), compared to 27% of the general population aged 30-49, and 20% of those 50+26

When looking at race and ethnicity, Asian (67%) and Arab Muslims (66)% hold similar views that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, with White Muslims being slightly lower (56%). Black Muslims, however, are significantly less likely to view abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with only 48% holding this view27. Among the general public, there are no racial differences between Americans who are white (60%), Black (62%), and Hispanic (66%) who view that abortion should be legal in all or most cases28.

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The diversity of abortion rights in some Muslim-majority countries are a starting point in encouraging liberalisation in other countries | EUROPP (