Saudi Arabia’s abortion laws are more forgiving than Alabama’s

Saudi students headed to a job fair.
Saudi students headed to a job fair.
Image: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser
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The United States prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave, a place that protects individual liberty and prizes privacy. Yet the freedom of women in the US is increasingly being threatened by highly restrictive abortion bans, passed at the state level, which violate the US Constitution. These laws make the legal codes of many Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East and North Africa seem more free, a fact that may surprise freedom-prizing Americans.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week (paywall) that the abortion bans just passed in Alabama and Georgia are more restrictive than prohibitions in about half of the Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Leila Hessini, vice president of the Global Fund for Women, which promotes gender equality initiatives worldwide, tells the publication, “There is not the same level of fervor, violence, and attacks on women and providers as in the US—we’re not seeing right now in the Middle East and North Africa a desire to make laws more punitive and more restrictive for women who need abortions and providers. We are seeing that in the US.”

On May 15, Alabama’s Republican governor Kay Ivey signed the single most punitive abortion law in America, and one of the most restrictive in the Western world (pdf). It is aimed at doctors but will affect all women who seek an abortion by making provision of this service a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

There is an exception to save a mother’s life in the new Alabama law, but none for pregnancies arising from incest or rape. Ivey and the bill’s supporters know that the state law is unconstitutional and will be challenged in federal courts, but they said they passed it with the intention of taking a case to the Supreme Court, where they will fight to overturn Roe v. Wade, the matter that legalized abortion in the US in 1973.

In Saudi Arabia, abortion is allowed in cases of risk to a woman’s life and to protect her physical and mental health. A pregnancy arising from incest or rape might qualify for a legal abortion there under the mental health exemption. Saudi women just got the freedom to drive last year, but it seems they have less to fear when it comes to terminating pregnancies than women in Alabama.

Similarly, abortion laws in other Muslim-majority nations allow pregnancies to be terminated in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment, or risk to a woman’s mental or physical health. These exemptions to abortion bans exist in Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

In Turkey, abortion is legal and free during the first trimester. Thereafter it is allowed only if a woman’s life is at risk or to protect her physical and mental health or in case of fetal abnormalities.

Similar exemptions are legalized in the North African countries Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. And Tunisia—like Turkey—provides free abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy at public health facilities with no restrictions.

Notably, Alabama in 2014 passed a law banning civil courts from considering “foreign law” in their rulings. It was drafted by the man who wrote Alabama’s new anti-abortion bill, activist Eric Johnston, founder of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition. Johnston had argued that the foreign law exemption was necessary to protect American women because the Islamic legal code, known as sharia, restricts women’s freedom and should not be a consideration in state cases. “Sharia law violates women’s rights,” he said.

However, as Haaretz points out, there is no centralized body that decides sharia law. It is interpreted by religious figures around the world whose views vary widely, which explains the differences in various majority-Muslim nations’ positions on abortion.

Now, Alabama finds itself in the company of about half of Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Syria, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq, which according to United Nations and World Health Organization data, have total bans on abortions except where a woman’s life is in danger. So much for the US being land of the free.