Tuesday, 1 November 2011

talking to pregnancy counselling services

do you believe in coincidences? well i have one for you. a few weeks ago i was contacted by someone from pregnancy counselling services, asking if i could present to them about any particular issues regarding muslims their counsellors should be aware of. so this saturday morning, a friend came with me to present to the group a muslim perspective on issues around unwanted pregnancy.

we had split it up so that i did the "theory", in terms of religious beliefs and requirements, while she covered the more practical aspects. i went through the sources of muslim law, before talking about contraception, abortion, marriage, motherhood. some of these things are more difficult than others.

marriage and motherhood are pretty straightforward, with a very high value placed on both. but on the issues of contraception and abortion, things aren't as clear-cut as people think. views on contraception range from the liberal to the conservative - the most conservative believing it isn't allowed at all; the liberal view being that it is allowed as long as both parties agree.

abortion is generally thought to be forbidden, but i've read and heard various views on this. it certainly isn't forbidden in all muslim countries, and at various times in history under different regimes, it has been sometimes allowed and sometimes not allowed. there is actually no mention in the qur'an of abortion, and it is really a matter of interpretation.

what isn't contentious is the notion that the soul enters the fetus at the end of the first trimester. on that basis, some jurists say abortion is allowed before the first trimester. others say it is allowed only in the first 40 days. there are those who say it isn't allowed at all. any abortion after the first trimester would only be considered allowable if the life of the mother was at risk, or if the fetus was so severely deformed that to carry on would entail significant hardship on both the child that is born and the family that is faced with the burden of care.

for abortions in the first trimester, even many conservative scholars would say it's allowed for "valid reasons". one reason, for example, is that a woman is allowed to have a two-year gap between pregnancies, and should she fall pregnant before that gap, then she can have an abortion.

because these issues aren't clear cut, i've come to the conclusion that a woman's decision to have an abortion is between her & God. the state should provide safe abortions, and leave her to her own conscience. abortions should be provided in a timely fashion, and particularly for women who do believe it has to occur in the first trimester, they shouldn't be hindered because of loopholes created by the state, or because the state doesn't provide sufficient funding for adequate health services.

the fact is that no human being can look directly into the heart of another. no-one has the lived experience or the exact same personality as another. what is bearable for one person is unbearable to another. i don't see how we can judge one against the other and say "so-and-so can manage, therefore you should also be able to manage in a similar situation". because no two situations are exactly equal and no two people are exactly the same.

when it comes to counselling, my message to the counsellors was that they were there to help and support the woman who had contacted them. they needed to be guided by her - to understand her fears, to find out the kinds of pressures she might be facing. most of all, they should provide all the options, and leave any judgement at the door.

i felt really uncomfortable at the questioning of one of the women there - she couldn't understand how a family could shun a young, unwed pregnant woman and was quite condemning. what she was failing to understand was the cultural and social pressures, and the wider consequences faced by the family. when a culture is set-up a certain way, it's totally understandable that individual actors within it are going to act in the best interests of themselves and their loved ones. this can involve competing interests within the family: what might be in the best interests of the pregnant woman might not be in the best interests of the family as a whole and particularly of other siblings.

her failure to grasp that or to even understand the source of the pressure (ie societal) didn't make me very hopeful that she could provide appropriate advice to someone who was in need of help. women who call the service are going to be feeling scared, feeling guilty, feeling conflicted. and what they really don't need is someone giving them a critique of their culture or criticism of their families at a time they're feeling particularly vulnerable. not to say that this particular counsellor (or any other) would do that, but the thing is that when you feel a contempt for something or someone, it tends to show through, much as you try to hide it.

in an ideal world, every pregnant woman would be well-supported and provided full information so that she could make a free choice without feeling guilty about it. but we don't live in that ideal world. not anywhere. we live in the world we have, try to change it for the better as best we can, and in the meantime support people knowing that they have to deal with all kinds of injustice.

there was one other main message i gave to the group: that religion and culture are two different things. religious beliefs are often influenced by cultural practices and the latter sometimes trump religious beliefs. sometimes people following a religion don't even know the difference between practices and traditions arising from local culture, and those arising from religious requirements. when so much is open to interpretation, i find it really hard to be dogmatic. others apparently don't have any qualms.

but if i'm going to be asked for advice, then this is what i'll say: err on the side of compassion. provide support and safety for the living women who find themselves in difficult circumstances, and be slow to judge. that is all.


Scuba Nurse said...

Awesome piece, I would have loved to hear you speak, Im sure they got a lot out of it.
And hopefully the young lady doesnt try to change society from the direction of the most vulnerable.

Climbing Trees said...

Curious. Is this the Pregnancy Counselling Service that was started by an anti-abortion activist in SPUC way back when? If so, did you ask them what they tell women who ask about abortion? If not, never mind.

Deborah said...

This is a wonderful post, anjum. I like so much of it, but the passages that stand out for me are the way that you describe the diversity of understandings about abortion within the broad grouping of Muslims, and your point about the difference between religion and culture, and especially this:

the fact is that no human being can look directly into the heart of another. no-one has the lived experience or the exact same personality as another. what is bearable for one person is unbearable to another.


stargazer said...

@ CT: i was initially contacted by a catholic woman i knew from another organisation, and i really grilled her to make sure that their counsellors provided *all* information to the women who call them. i was assured that all options were presented and women were supported with whatever they decided.

deborah & scuba, thanx for the kind words. scuba, the woman in question wasn't young at all. there were no young people present - the women all looked over 40 except for one who may have been in her late 20s. there was one man present, and he was really lovely. from what i understood, he doesn't do the phone calls, but works with young men.