Q. Modern technology allows us to detect deformities in children before they are born. What is the Islamic position on aborting a fetus if a deformity is detected that will place a burden on the parents? Additionally, can abortions be performed in cases of rape and incest? Can you think of any other instances in which abortions would be Islamically permissible?

A. The questions are headaches for Muslim bio-ethicists. This is because, as noted by Fazlur Rahman, Muslim jurists have traditionally paid attention to more form and adherence to classical rulings rather than examine the ethics of the Book of Allah. I am certainly aware of the controversy surrounding the issue of abortion in religious thought in general, and therefore issue my answer with full contemplation that it may be viewed in some circles as tantamount to heresy. That being said, I can only answer to the best of my understanding of Allah's Book. Now as far as the scenario where a scan, for example, indicates a debilitating deformity in the yet unborn child, or where a brain scan with the coloration indicators known to the specialists in the field show that the child will have a brain pattern that is prone to violence and criminality, one may base the answer on qiyas from the story of Moses and the servant of Allah, in verses 18:74 and 18:80. The servant of Allah slays the young man and then explains his deed in light of the prognosis that the boy would have been sinful and criminal. In this case, it is a human who has not committed any crime, but yet is denied to continue living as stated in the Qur'anic ayah.

Now certainly this is graver than an abortion! So without any long commentary, I think that the qiyas to be made is quite clear. Many Muslims feel that a deformed child or a severely mentally challenged child is a blessing in disguise, as it gives them (the parents) the chance to show their acceptance of Allah's will and emulate the patience of Job. The parents may also feel that the child may, contrary to medical prognoses, turn out to be good or do some deed for the benefit of all humankind. Certainly this is a meritorious way of handling things, but one may also point out that we can only act in light of what our knowledge tells us. If our modern medical technology allows us to make diagnoses with accuracy, then we may choose to act on that which we deem in conjunction with permissibility. From a purely legal point of view, I would rule the abortion allowable. The matter of abortion in the case of mental or other disabilities is not an operation to be undertaken in order to "preserve the purity of the species." The bio-ethicists, the doctors, and specialists who deal with the matter should all be involved in the process of determination. Our allowance is only given in the worst case scenario -- i.e. where the infirmity is so debilitating that there exists no probable chance of an enjoyable, productive life, and that instead all indicators are for a horrible, punishing torture of existence, wherein the victim is not one, but several. In the case of the brain scan for criminal elements, this is quite obvious. And in any case, Allah will judge us according to our intentions.

As for rape and incest, there are many jurists who rule on the permissibility of abortion in such cases for reasons that should be obvious to any thinking person. As to those who talk about when a fetus gets imbued with a soul, etc., we have in previous questions discussed the whole issue of the soul and shown it to be a fallacy. There are those who say that if the mother reaches the third trimester of pregnancy, in which case an abortion is detrimental to her health, then she should not have one. This begs the question as to why she would be allowed to reach that stage. Assuming, however, that there are special circumstances that cause such a delay, then the person to best rule on an abortion or prevention of such is a medical specialist and not necessarily a jurist. This is because the permissibility of the abortion has been established, and operation and its health risks fall within the parameters of medical knowledge rather than fiqh.

As far as other situations where abortions may be permitted, the unanimous ruling on a delivery where the health of the mother is threatened and the risk would be eliminated by aborting the fetus is well known. The first part of our answer, which is in response to the first part of the question, also subsumes fetuses from drug addicts, which even in the womb, may be deemed incurably afflicted. One cannot fail to take notice of certain issues on the whole abortion issue: namely that there is a great difference between a fetus and a human that has come into the world. One also must note that a woman has a right to her body and that she is not to be a vessel for reproduction, which is one of the misconceptions that makes abortion such a touchy issue. There is a major fiqh maxim that states in functional translation -- Affliction is eliminated -- "al darar yuzaal." This major maxim has many sub-maxims, many of which may be applied in the abortion issues presented by your question, among them: "the lesser of two evils is chosen," "private calamity is borne in order to prevent a general calamity." And Allah knows best.

Posted November 16, 1999