Israel has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, whereas the practice is generally more limited in regional Muslim countries
Two-thirds of Irish voters opted in a historic May 25 referendum to overturn one of the world’s only constitutional bans on abortion, in the process sparking a worldwide debate over female reproductive rights.
Approaches to the issue vary from country-to-country and region-to-region. In the United States, for example, abortion was in 1973 legalized by the Supreme Court in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Nevertheless, it remains a hot-button issue, dividing the country along religious and political lines.
In most Middle East nations, abortion laws are primarily derived from Islamic religious rulings. Not so, however, in Israel, which boasts some of the most liberal abortion regulations in the world despite the major influence of religious authorities on policy-making. That said, while the birth rate in Israel continues to rise (in 2016, Israeli women were having, on average, just under three children, the highest fertility rate of any member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation), the termination-to-live-birth ratio continues to fall.
Abortion was legalized in Israel in 1977 and most procedures are today covered by national insurance. To end a pregnancy, women must register with a Pregnancy Termination Committee, which before 24 weeks of gestation includes two doctors and a social worker, and thereafter, until 40 weeks, includes a larger group of specialists. About 20,000 procedures are approved each year, amounting to about 98 percent of all requests.
Unlike Catholicism, which considers a fetus a human being from the moment of conception, in Judaism, a fetus is considered to be “merely water” until 40 days-old and is not conferred the same status as a person until birth. While the Quran does not directly discuss abortion, a fetus is considered to have a soul after four months, but abortion at any point is generally considered prohibited. Many Islamic scholars permit exceptions to the rule, including in situations whereby there is a “real danger” to a prospective mother’s life, though what exactly this constitutes is debated.
“There is not much difference between Arab countries, although some states are revising this law,” Dr. Thalia Arawi, a Clinical Bioethicist at the American University of Beirut, explained to The Media Line. “For example, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar [in Egypt] approved a draft law allowing women to abort a pregnancy that is the result of rape.”
Of Muslim-majority countries, Tunisia has the least restrictive abortion laws, allowing the practice at any time with a doctor’s consent, whereas Turkey permits abortion for any reason within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg, Director of the Medical Ethics Unit at Israel’s Shaare Zedek Hospital, stressed to The Media Line that according to Jewish law “if [the fetus] endangers the mother’s life, [every religious opinion] agrees [that terminating the pregnancy is] permissible, even mandatory.”
Israeli law covers a broader range of factors such as economic difficulties and the potential emotional damages to the woman. Additionally, the unborn child’s quality of life after birth is taken into account when deciding whether or not to allow an abortion, including possible medical problems.
Therefore, Steinberg contends that Israeli law deviates from Jewish law on the issue. “Jewish law doesn’t distinguish between less-well people and more-well people. If [the child] will not endanger anyone else, then the decision [to allow it to live or die] isn’t so simple.”
For her part, Arawi maintains that “bioethics [in the Muslim world] is basically [tantamount to] religious ethics,” adding that while she thinks it is important for religion to be a consideration in the formulation of policies, it should not be the sole deciding factor.
“You see, at times, what is ethical is not legal and what is legal is not necessarily ethical,” she told The Media Line. “My main concern is that, in general, laws and policies are done from afar, without involving the public that will be affected by them.”
According to a World Health Organization study, stricter abortion laws do not necessarily result in fewer pregnancy terminations; rather, restrictive laws force women to turn to dangerous means. In this vain, researchers found that an abortion is one of the safest medical procedures if done properly, and the cause of one in six maternal deaths if performed using an unsafe method.
For many proponents of abortion, this provides justification for Israel’s long-maintained liberal-minded policies, as well as sufficient impetus to push for a shift in the way reproductive rights are viewed and respected in other Middle East countries.
(Atara Shields is a Student Intern with The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)