The topic of abortion has once again been brought into public focus after a local doctor’s hearing with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) on 27 August was temporarily adjourned. The doctor Jacques de Vos is facing charges of unprofessional conduct due to his views on abortion and for allegedly telling a patient that a foetus was a human being – effectively equating abortion to the killing of an unborn human.
While the incident happened more than two years ago, the topic of abortion – and De Vos’ case – is as relevant as ever and the issue raises some interesting questions around how Muslim doctors deal with abortion while adhering to Islamic morals, principles and laws. Is there room for religious ethics in South African abortion law?
The Islamic Medical Association of South Africa (IMA) says Muslim doctors face no moral or religious dilemma, as the law on abortion in South Africa allows for conscientious objection.
“That means that you do not have to partake in any abortions if you object to it. The law, however, states that you must direct the patient requesting an abortion to a facility that performs it,” said the IMA.
“Muslim doctors will always uphold the principles of care and compassion and will always counsel the patient before referral.”
The IMA added, however, that there are certain obligations Muslim doctors will face if they are the only person on duty and a situation arises where assistance in an abortive process is urgently required.
“If the Muslim doctor is the only person on duty and a woman presents with a life-threatening bleed due to an incomplete abortion procedure carried out elsewhere, that doctor is ethically and morally duty-bound to perform whatever procedure is required to save the life of the patient.”
The IMA says it strongly opposes abortion and its stance is not to perform it or be a part of it.
“There are a few [Islamic] legal rulings where it is permissible…[but] even then, a panel of competent doctors have to sit and make the ruling based on the evidence presented. The IMA stance is to say no to abortion and to examine each case on its merits.”
When asked whether a health professional’s rights are pitted against those of a woman’s in the South African context as it relates to the issue of abortion, the IMA said that both parties have equal rights and that doctors who do not wish to partake in the procedure do not have to.
“This is a very difficult question and should be seen as [relating to] the rights of the doctors and of the women. Both have equal rights.”
“There are sufficient medical practitioners who are able to service the needs of the woman requesting the service. Doctors who do not wish to partake in the procedure do not have to and are only duty-bound to point out which facilities do the procedure. Only as mentioned before in the case of an emergency the rights of the patient supersede the rights of the doctor.”
Muslims wanting to study medicine but who are hesitant due to the fear of being forced to conduct abortions when they qualify can therefore breathe easy. Medical students are likewise able to refuse to assist with abortion procedures during their period of study, according to the IMA.