The tension between muslim law and social realities : a case of abortion in Pakistan

Nadia Amin Rehmani, ISMC


This study investigates the issue of abortion in Pakistan from the perspectives of

women who go through abortion. In doing so, it discusses whether there is a dilemma between the ethics of abortion based on contextual realities, and the Shari‘a law based on the discourses of the Qur’an and the Hadith and their interpretations and applications in the fiqh. The objectives of the research are to investigate how Muslims take decisions about abortion, and who takes them.

The empirical research was conducted in Karachi. Using a case study approach, the data was collected through semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis. Three groups of people were interviewed: women who had experienced abortion, doctors, and religious scholars to seek different perspectives. The women were from different ethnic and socio-cultural backgrounds.

The findings reveal that women are often not the sole decision makers. With some

exceptions, most decisions are taken by husbands. The decision making becomes

difficult where husbands do not cooperate and even threaten to use the law against

their wives, which gives severe punishments, except when abortions are performed for health reasons and for necessary treatment. The abortion law in Pakistan, derived from Muslim fiqh, has a narrow scope and there exists a tension between the law and social realities. Thus women suffer the most and risk their lives due to restrictive laws and unqualified abortion service providers. Most abortions take place due to poverty and for economic reasons for which people take pragmatic approaches. They rarely consult religious clergy in taking the decisions but most women felt that abortion was a sin. Yet they asserted that they abort out of necessity. Abortion is also used as a means of family planning.

It is concluded that judgments about abortions are made based on ethical reasoning under compelling socio-economic realities rather than on beliefs and law, although there remains a tension between the two. Abortion law in Pakistan should provide for equal and mutual consent of husband and wife and broaden its scope as provided in Muslim law. But there is also a need to generate ethical discourses to draw broad principles rather than rules to solve contemporary issues of abortion.