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With Roe Overthrown, Even a few Arab and Muslim Countries now more Tolerant of Abortion than many U.S. States

posted on: Jun 29, 2022

Overthrowing Roe means a large majority of women and their families are disenfranchised from safe abortions. The Arab World is also no stranger to restrictive abortion laws. However, even some Arab countries now have more tolerant laws on abortion than some U.S. states.

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

After Roe, U.S. controls more restrictive than some Arab country abortion laws

The overturning of Roe v. Wade was no surprise. Ex-President Trump’s appointment of three openly pro-life judges sealed the deal. They overturned Roe because they didn’t like it. Many more Americans approve of abortion than those who do not. However, the politics of the issue has swayed some minority faith communities to use legal channels to get their way. This means many American women and their families will suffer in the absence of safe abortion services.

The National Review reported that “The Arab world is no stranger to restrictive abortion laws.” It compared some Arab states with Alabama. Alabama “has passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the U.S., [one that] enforces a near-total ban on all abortions.” That law prohibits abortions at any stage of pregnancy, “with no exceptions for rape or incest unless the pregnant person’s life is at risk.”

Some Arab countries are at about the same stage as Alabama in their restrictive abortion laws. There are, however, some exceptions. Many of these countries use a religious basis, namely Islam, for their laws. This is akin to many American anti-abortionists, who use the Bible as the source of their views.

The last abortion clinic in Alabama closed immediately upon SCOTUS decision to dump Roe — Photo WAFF48

Turkey and Tunisia have the least restrictive laws. A favorable example of access is Kurdistan in northern Iraq. There, women and girls impregnated by ISIS members have been given access to safe abortions at a clinic. They must seek help secretly, however. Because abortions are illegal in the rest of Iraq, where most sources of abortion are unsafe.

Turkey permits abortions up to the tenth week of pregnancy. If the pregnancy was a result of a criminal act, including rape or sexual abuse, up to 20 weeks of the pregnancy are allowable. However, a married woman must have her husband’s consent to abort. Only saving the life of the woman is the extent of the law in Iraq, Bahrain, and the Palestinian West Bank. Other countries allow for health complications of the mother such as in Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Some majority Muslim countries more progressive than U.S. South on abortion

Abortion legislation in the U.S. South is more repressive than in most majority Muslim countries. That is the finding of Per Media Line. It suggests, “Islam is more lenient than Christianity with respect to abortion. Abortion laws in most majority Muslim countries are more progressive than the anti-women legislation that we are seeing in the US South,”

An example of such a progressive law is Tunisia. “Tunisia, a majority Muslim country, reformed its abortion law in 1973. Its legislation is more progressive and abortion is more accessible than many states in the US.” Perhaps ironic is the history of women’s rights in Middle East colonial settings. The colonizers’ restrictions on women’s rights, including reproductive rights, were harsher than the colonized states. These colonizer restrictions remain today in Middle Eastern states.

Supporting the colonizer theory is one presented in an earlier Arab America report: “Women’s human rights, of which access to safe abortion is only one of many, have not progressed in the Arab World since the colonial period when French and British regimes supported pro-birth policies to increase the population of the colonized lands. By not addressing these colonial laws that criminalized abortion, they became entrenched in society and medical services for women desiring abortions have become further restricted.”

Colonial invaders–in this case the French in Algeria–imposed stricter anti-abortion laws in Arab countries than had previously existed — Photo SlideShare

Safe abortion has become an issue, especially in conflicted parts of the Arab world. Mideast News reports, “Invasion, war, civil war, dictatorship, and occupation have probably been the most important reasons why taking up women’s issues, of which access to safe abortion is only one of many, has not progressed in the Middle East.”

Earlier Islamic rulings on abortion were sometimes quite tolerant. In some Sunni branches, abortion could take place up to 120 days of gestation. There was even a name for the life of the fetus at this four-month period. It was called “ensoulment,” the moment when a human being gains a soul. In Shia Islam, another norm applies. As soon as the embryo is implanted on the uterine wall, abortion is forbidden. This occurs within days of fertilization. Not much of a chance for a woman to control her reproductive assets.

When abortions are outlawed

25% of all pregnancies globally end in induced abortions. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that roughly 25 million unsafe abortions take place worldwide each year. Most of these occur in developing countries. In the U.S., they take place among disadvantaged Black and other women of color, and poor white women. Most deaths are due to complications of unsafe abortion practices.

A concerning fact for the U.S. picture of abortion acceptance arises along religious lines. The following graph displays that White Evangelicals are most likely to believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases; their opinion is that “the legality of abortion is not a ‘women’s issue.’” Comparative data show differences among major religious groupings. Information on Christian Arabs was unavailable. The data derived from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding—American Muslim Poll.

Graph — Institute for Social Policy and Understanding—American Muslim Poll

A summary of the graph’s findings is:

o Within Muslim communities, men are on par with women in their view that abortion should be legal in all or most cases; most of both groups believe abortion should be legal (61% of women and 53% of men).
o Men and women of all faith and non-faith groups surveyed did not significantly differ on their opinions of the legality of abortion (illegal vs. legal); 59% of men and 64% of women in the general public believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
o A relatively small minority, 16%, of American Muslims hold the opinion that abortion should be illegal in all cases; Muslim men (19%) are more likely than Muslim women (11%) to hold that view.

Abortion is a sensitive topic around the world. It differs among religious groupings. Among political groupings. What is not different is its variable availability to women in need. Disadvantaged women, whether in developing or developed countries, are least likely to have access to safe abortions. Many American women now have the same lack of access to such abortions. That is striking. To say the least.

“Framing the Abortion Picture in the Arab World,” The Media Line – Mideast News (original date 5/21/2019), republished 6/25/2022
“Seeking an Abortion in the Arab World,” Women on Web, Arab World, no date available
“Where do Arab countries stand in terms of abortion?” StepFeed-Source National Review 5/20/2019
“Muslim views on abortion,” Wikipedia, no date available
“My body, my choice” – Is there a right to safe abortion in the Arab World? Arab America, 11/3/2021
“Muslim views on abortion,” Wikipedia, no date available
“The Majority of American Muslims Believe Abortion Should be Legal in All or Most Cases,” Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, American Muslim Poll, 5/5/2022

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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