Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 39 Nos. 3

Islam and Abortion: The Diversity of Discourses and Practices

Published on 1 July 2008

One in four world citizens is Muslim and 57 countries are official members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Muslims comprise close to half of all Africans, one-fourth of Asians and growing numbers of Europeans and Americans, and represent great variation across racial, ethnic, linguistic and geographic lines. While all Muslims share certain core beliefs, official and practised Islam manifests itself in different ways as it intersects with local cultures, traditions, histories and politics.

The diversity found across the Muslim world is apparent in different countries’ abortion laws and practices. Tunisia, for example, reformed its abortion law before France and the USA; services are provided free through the public healthcare system and pregnancy termination is socially accepted. While it is true that legal restrictions on abortion exist throughout the Muslim world, most are not due to shari’a2 – as some might believe – but to antiquated colonial texts which are the basis for abortion laws in the majority of countries.

Examples from the three most populated Muslim countries are particularly revealing of these differences. In Indonesia, the most populated Muslim country with one of the highest unsafe abortion rates, several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been working for years to influence a change in the law and have mobilised key Muslim groups in their efforts. Pregnancy terminations are so common in Pakistan that on average, each Pakistani woman will experience one abortion in her lifetime (Population Council 2004). Menstrual regulation – which allows for early evacuation of uterine contents after a missed pregnancy – has been an integral part of Bangladesh’s primary healthcare for close to 30 years and as such, Bangladesh has one of the world’s most decentralised systems of pregnancy termination (Nashid and Olsson 2007).

The goal of this article is to elucidate examples of the variations in Muslim belief and practice related to abortion. I begin by providing examples of abortion related practices and policies in key Muslim countries. Given the increased use of religion in public policy decisions, positions of religious leaders are discussed, followed by examples of strategies to break the silence around abortion and ensure that women have access to safe abortions. This article ends with suggestions on future prospects for change.

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.3 (2008) Islam and Abortion: The Diversity of Discourses and Practices

Cite this publication

Hessini, L. (2008) Islam and Abortion: The Diversity of Discourses and Practices. IDS Bulletin 39(3): 18-27


Leila Hessini

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
Hessini, Leila


Related content