Interpretations of Islamic Law Deny Women Choice in Indonesia and Malaysia

Ramona Vijeyarasa

In most Muslim-majority countries, abortion is generally prohibited with exceptions made where the health of the mother is at risk, but doctors often aren't aware of the legal exceptions.

Last month
the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) published Surfacing, a compilation of the papers presented
at the 4th Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive Sexual Health and
Rights (APCRSH) in Hyderabad last year. Surfacing discusses
the impact of Roman Catholic, Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism on sexual
and reproductive health and rights in a number of countries in the region.
In many respects, the publication attempts to address the challenges
of religious fundamentalism, whilst encouraging a more rights-based
and gendered approach to practicing religion.  

Of particular
interest is Zaitun Mohamed Kasim’s contribution on Islamic fundamentalism. His contribution raises many concerning examples of how the differing interpretations
of Islamic jurisprudence bear upon a range of reproductive health issues
in Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim-Dominant countries in Southeast
Asia, where 60.4 and 86.1 percent of the population respectively
are Islamic. With no central doctrinal authority, fatwahs (religious edicts) serve as the "bridge"
between Islamic principles and modern life. With thousands of fatwahs
issued every month in Islamic countries around the globe, even religious
and political leaders in the Muslim world admit that the number is excessive, causing confusion and potentially
reflecting ideology more than learning. 

This divergence
in Islamic thought is reflected in the varying levels of acknowledgment
and acceptance of abortion. In most Muslim-majority countries, abortion
is generally prohibited with exceptions usually made where the health
of the mother is at risk. Malaysia’s Abortion
Act 1967

makes termination of pregnancy illegal, with minor exceptions. A pregnancy
may be terminated if two registered medical practitioners are of the
opinion, formed in good faith, that continuation of the pregnancy will
endanger the mother’s life. Termination of pregnancy is also advised
to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical and mental health
of the mother. ARROW reports that many service providers
and members of the public in Malaysia do not know the legal exceptions
for abortion, partly due a lack of accurate information and partly because
of the low priority accorded by the government to promoting women’s
reproductive rights. Dr
Choong Sim Poey of the Reproductive Rights
Advocacy Alliance

in Malaysia similarly suggests that whilst abortion services are "widely
available" in the private sector, information about public
sector abortion services is "hush-hush," with the Ministry of Health refusing to provide abortion services in public
hospitals based on the interpretation of the penal code.   

The Indonesian
abortion law is based on a national health bill passed in 1992 that
has been criticized for its vagueness. The law is generally interpreted as allowing
abortion only if the woman provides confirmation from a doctor that
her pregnancy is life-threatening, a letter of consent from her husband
or a family member, a positive pregnancy test result and a statement
guaranteeing that she will practice contraception afterwards. Like in
Malaysia, Maria
Ufar Ansor
, head
of the women’s section of Indonesia’s biggest Islamic Organisation,
Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has stated that dangerous abortion techniques
are not uncommon, with the Guttmacher
two million induced abortions in Indonesia every year.  

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The study conducted
by the Guttmacher
is particularly
interesting for its survey of the attitude to abortion of 105 Muslim,
Catholic and other Christian religious leaders in Indonesia. This survey
revealed that 82% of the leaders surveyed agreed that abortion is acceptable
if a woman’s life is in danger, many reasoning that a woman’s life
should be prioritized over that of the fetus because a woman "is needed
to look after the children and family she already has." The survey
also concluded that Muslim leaders, though conservative, were more tolerant
of abortion than their Christian counterparts, with a higher proportion
of Muslim than Christian leaders supporting abortion if the pregnancy
would interfere with a woman’s schooling or impact her psychological

however, the Guttmacher report notes the differences in what is considered
an acceptable gestational period according to sect. Followers of Imam
Hanafi generally consider an abortion acceptable up to 120 days after
conception. However, followers of Syafi’i consider abortion acceptable
only within 40 days of conception. Indonesian Matters,
an Indonesian website on the theme of culture and Islamization, refers
to the head of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), Indonesia’s Clerics’
Council, Ma’ruf
, who espouses
that the book recalling the words and deeds of Muhammad "says that
at the fortieth day of pregnancy the unborn child receives its soul
or spirit, and hence abortion after this time is forbidden." For this
reason, back in 2004, when 13 Indonesian Muslim scholars
proposed that an exception should be created for pregnancy resulting
from rape or incest, the MUI rejected the proposal, responding that
such an exception would amount to the taking of a life, jinayah
or murder.

of what is haram (prohibited) or halal
(permitted) in Islam similarly impact contraceptive use, attitudes towards
family planning services for unmarried couples and people living with
HIV/AIDS, which I will discuss in a future posting. Yet, the impact
on abortion alone is sufficient to highlight the potential gravity of
restrictive interpretations of Islamic tenets, with the World Health Organization reporting that in 2000 unsafe abortion
accounted for 19 percent of maternal deaths in Southeast Asia. At the
same time, the differences in the abortion laws in the two countries
as well as the divergence of opinion within the Islamic religion itself,
remind us about the necessity to distinguish between religion and religious
fundamentalism. What we see here is the interpretation and application
of religious principles in a way that encroaches on reproductive freedoms
at the cost of women’s lives.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Abortion

Study: United States a ‘Stark Outlier’ in Countries With Legal Abortion, Thanks to Hyde Amendment

Nicole Knight Shine

The study's lead author said the United States' public-funding restriction makes it a "stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations."

The vast majority of countries pay for abortion care, making the United States a global outlier and putting it on par with the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and a handful of Balkan States, a new study in the journal Contraception finds.

A team of researchers conducted two rounds of surveys between 2011 and 2014 in 80 countries where abortion care is legal. They found that 59 countries, or 74 percent of those surveyed, either fully or partially cover terminations using public funding. The United States was one of only ten countries that limits federal funding for abortion care to exceptional cases, such as rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Among the 40 “high-income” countries included in the survey, 31 provided full or partial funding for abortion care—something the United States does not do.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, lead author and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California (UC) San Francisco, said in a statement announcing the findings that this country’s public-funding restriction makes it a “stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations.”

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The researchers call on policymakers to make affordable health care a priority.

The federal Hyde Amendment (first passed in 1976 and reauthorized every year thereafter) bans the use of federal dollars for abortion care, except for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Seventeen states, as the researchers note, bridge this gap by spending state money on terminations for low-income residents. Of the 14.1 million women enrolled in Medicaid, fewer than half, or 6.7 million, live in states that cover abortion services with state funds.

This funding gap delays abortion care for some people with limited means, who need time to raise money for the procedure, researchers note.

As Jamila Taylor and Yamani Hernandez wrote last year for Rewire, “We have heard first-person accounts of low-income women selling their belongings, going hungry for weeks as they save up their grocery money, or risking eviction by using their rent money to pay for an abortion, because of the Hyde Amendment.”

Public insurance coverage of abortion remains controversial in the United States despite “evidence that cost may create a barrier to access,” the authors observe.

“Women in the US, including those with low incomes, should have access to the highest quality of care, including the full range of reproductive health services,” Grossman said in the statement. “This research indicates there is a global consensus that abortion care should be covered like other health care.”

Earlier research indicated that U.S. women attempting to self-induce abortion cited high cost as a reason.

The team of ANSIRH researchers and Ibis Reproductive Health uncovered a bit of good news, finding that some countries are loosening abortion laws and paying for the procedures.

“Uruguay, as well as Mexico City,” as co-author Kate Grindlay from Ibis Reproductive Health noted in a press release, “legalized abortion in the first trimester in the past decade, and in both cases the service is available free of charge in public hospitals or covered by national insurance.”