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Bioethics ISSN 0269-9702

Volume 11 Number 3&4 1997

A Report from Bangladesh


ISSUES RELATED TO THE
IMPLEMENTATION OF
REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY IN
ISLAMIC SOCIETIES
HASNA BEGUM
I
The revolutionary advancement in the field of reproductive
technology during the last couple of decades creates controversial
moral, legal and religious issues regarding the implementation of the
same. The technology by now is so advanced that controlling
reproduction is, in most cases, possible. On the one hand, couples
who do not desire to have children may adopt the techniques and stop
their reproduction at will. On the other hand, couples who desire to
have children but fail to reproduce may take recourse to various
technologies which, in most cases, enables them to have children.
In order to stop reproduction artificially, the most important
methods are the use of reversible contraceptives of various kinds by
both female and male partners, e.g. the use of hormonal pills,
condoms, diaphragms with anti-sperm jellies, norplants and
periodical injections, etc. Among these, most are used by female
partners and they have to bear the adverse side-effects which cause
serious diseases, such as hypertension, cervical cancer, backache,
occasional blood clots, general weakness and many others. Male
partners use condoms only at the cost of the lessening of their sexual
pleasure due the loss of direct contact with the vagina. The
irreversible methods, vasectomy for males and litigation for female
partners, are not allowed in Islam. Another radical but most
primitive method of stopping reproduction, but not conception, is
abortion. This is not a preventive method, but curative in the sense
of getting rid of undesired pregnancies. Regarding this primitive
method, there is a controversy even in the contemporary western
world which is yet to be resolved.
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HASNA BEGUM

Reproductive technology has two diametrically opposed aspects:


one, to increase reproduction, and this is the positive aspect; and the
other, to decrease reproduction, which is its negative aspect. In its
positive aspects the technologies help in many ways the infertile
couples to procreate; and in its negative aspect the technologies are
to limit or stop reproduction. In the case of infertile couples, there
are now many techniques already available: for example, due to
sparse presence of sperm, the preservation of sperm to be used in
artificial insemination is now possible; when natural copulation fails
to cause conception, hormonal treatment can be used for women
who fail to produce eggs; surrogation is possible when a female
partner does not have the capacity to bear the embryo in her womb
for one or other kind of organic defect; and in-vitro fertilization.
Most recently, it is claimed, experimentation on male
contraceptive pills/injections for stopping conception has been
successful and the side-effects are much less harmful compared to
female contraceptives which are being used by women. This fact
certainly reveals a ray of hope for those women who are suffering from
using female contraceptives in the cases where they have been able to
share the responsibility for planning the family size with the male
partners.1 The side-effects, as observed by the experimenters, on male
partners of this new technique are not as bad as those of female
contraceptives; rather, it elevates the libido in most cases, which
results in great satisfaction for both the sexual partners.2 Recently,
information regarding male hormonal contraceptives in the form of
pills has been announced through newspapers and television.3
II
The technologies invented for artificially controlling (in both helping
to reproduce or not) are so devised that, given the choice either to
individuals or to communities in which the individual in question
belongs, they have the propensities to control reproduction in various
degrees. These technologies are new and most are as yet at such an
experimental stage that it is not possible to foresee what will be the
consequences further into the future. Anyway, even if this kind of farfetched consideration is completely ignored, there are still many
1
See Karin Ringheim, `Whither Methods for Men? Emerging Gender Issues in
Contraception', Reproductive Health Matters, No. 7 (Men), May 1996, for the
information on the experiments on male contraceptives and related issues.
2
Ibid., pp. 84ff.
3
Newspaper and television news regarding male contraceptive pills was shown
and discussed some time in September^October 1996 in Bangladesh. I regret that I
was not alert enough to note the exact date of the broadcast of the news.

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moral, legal and religious considerations in the contexts of different


societies with different moral, legal and religious systems. Issues are
cropping up concomitantly with the increasing implementation of at
least some of these technologies.
Islamic societies are distinctively different from many other
societies and they have some peculiarities. With regard to these
peculiarities, the implementation of reproductive technologies raises
some special problems which we do not find in most of the permissive
and developed western societies.4 The peculiarities prevalent in
Islamic societies are the mandatory moral and legal codes originating
from the Holy Quran and the Hadith, and later from the interpretations of
the ulamas' when there are any controversies regarding any findings
from the Quran or in the Hadith.
Muslims must take Islam to be a comprehensive system that
regulates the individual and communal life. The teaching of Islam
covers all the fields of human activity. Hence, the implementation of
reproductive technologies in Islamic societies demands the prior
consideration of the Islamic code of conduct. This limits in many ways
the actual implementation of various technologies, e.g. surrogacy,
insemination of sperm from any other than the actual husband,
abortion (when pregnancy does not endanger the mother's life), etc.5
Islam as a religion has its own moral and religious framework.
Within this framework the issue of adopting the new reproductive
technologies becomes a reality, since ignoring the advancement
completely is not feasible at the fag-end of the twentieth century.
Realizing and accepting this fact, and also all the limitations of
implementing them, some contemporary Muslim scholars from
different Muslim countries assembled in Cairo, Egypt in May 1996
with the objective of framing an Islamic manual of family planning.
The Islamic Manual of Family Planning, after much deliberation and
discussion, was adopted by the scholars present, keeping it in
coherence with the main tenets and spirit of the Quran and other
accepted sources of the Islamic code of life. The contemporary
concepts of `reproductive choice' and that of `reproductive rights' of
an individual had to be taken into account in this deliberation. But it
4
`Islam is a faith which had over 1.225 billion adherents worldwide in the year
1990, and with the present rate of population growth this figure is expected to
increase to 2.5 billion in the year 2020.' These statistics are given in a paper
presented by A. Omran at the International Conference on Islam and Population
on `UN Data on Demography of the Islamic World' held in Jakarta, Indonesia in
1990.
5
For a detailed discussion, see G.I. Serour, `Islam and the Four Principles', in R.
Gillon and A. Lloyd (eds.), Principles of Health Care Ethics, Chichester, NY: John
Wiley, 1994, pp. 75ff.

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HASNA BEGUM

was finally diluted by the imposition of the basic spirit of Islam. The
resultant resolutions could not be but moderately open with small
windows here and there to vent in some air from the open and
permissive societies of the west. Although the resolutions taken
unanimously are Islamic in spirit, the spirit nonetheless is that of
modernization and progressive in nature.
III
In Islam, polygamy is generally allowed. Only a few Muslim majority
countries are exceptions.6 This is a very important aspect to be
considered in implementing reproductive technologies in Islamic
societies. It is mentioned above that male contraceptives, both in the
form of pills and injections, are to be available on the market soon.
This technique of controlling population, in its negative sense, is the
most suitable technique for Muslim populations for various reasons.
A Muslim man is allowed to have four wives at the same time,
although there is a condition attached to this privilege. All the four
wives are to be equally treated. Unfortunately, to my knowledge,
there is no qualification mentioned as to the `equal treatment' that a
man is supposed to offer to all of his four wives. The equality may take
different forms, but at the same time, measured from quantitative and
qualitative points of view, it may somehow achieve a kind of balance.
Is this what is meant in the Quran when the so-called `restriction' on
taking four women as co-wives is mentioned? It is not quite clear.7
Anyhow, assuming that it is humanly possible to treat four wives
equally, even then using male contraceptives is the most congenial
method of controlling population for the following important reasons:
it saves all four co-wives the pain and suffering from taking pills and
other hormonal treatments for stopping further reproduction;8 and
one male partner's, i.e. the husband's, active participation in taking
contraceptives saves the suffering of four co-wives. Here, `greater
6

For example, the condition of Bangladesh may be cited. Here, polygamy is not
encouraged in most parts of the country. Marriage for divorcees is acceptable. Only
in some parts like the greater Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Sherpur, Haluaghat, etc. is
polygamy allowed and generally not thought to be avoided.
7
For different and contradictory versions of the verses in the Quran and the sayings
of the Prophet, see the following papers by Riffat Hasan: `On Rights and the Quranic
Perspective', Journal of Economic Studies, 19:3, Summer, 1982; `The Issue of Woman^
Man Equality in the Islamic Tradition', in G. Hassan (ed.), Of the Spirit,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991; and `Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal
Islam', in Eakin Cooey (ed.), After Patriarchy, New York: McDaniel, 1991.
8
For detailed information on female contraceptives, see D. Melrose, Bitter Pills,
Dhaka: Oxfam, 1982.
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happiness for greater numbers' is too clearly a paradigm case: saves


pain for four persons this 1:4 ratio is an index for a more pain- and
anguish-free society. The main concern in this case will be, ideally:
`Men need to be more deeply involved in raising the status of women
and improving their choices, and in the practice of family planning,
childrearing, and emotional and financial support of their children'.9
Islamic codes implore men to act according to the above, though at the
same time some verses in the Quran also prescribe the roles of males and
females to be so diametrically opposed in character that it will certainly
not be at all easy to solve the anomaly in this regard.
The use of more advanced male contraceptives also implies more
private benefits in terms of number of members of a society. Also, the
public expenses for the actual implementation will be less, as less
expenses will be incurred. Medical care and health care management
costs will also be less, as the number of recipients will be less in a
polygamous society.
There is an important problem regarding the use of male
contraceptives in the form of pills and periodical injections in Islamic
societies, as one husband having been infected by STD/HIV may
transmit such diseases to four wives. So the husbands have to be sure
of the fact that they are not infected by STD/HIV. In the case of such
infections, sexual activities are to be stopped until there is no longer
any danger. The use of condoms is also not safe as the condoms may
give way and let the virus pass into the vagina of four co-wives within
a few days. If any of the wives is infected, then all four may become
infected, and abstinence from sexual activities is to be prescribed with
that particular wife.
With the implementation of male contraceptives, one very
important moral issue is involved, especially in Islamic societies where
polygamy is allowed. The concept of `mutual consent' creates a moral
issue in this context. If a man has four wives and he is willing to take
male temporary reversible contraceptives (not using condoms) like
pills and injections, then he has to seek the consent from all of his four
wives. This may not be very easy, for if one or more of his wives does
not give consent, then the implementation will not be morally
acceptable. But in reality most of the Islamic societies are patriarchal,
and consent and desire of women are generally ignored. Keeping this
reality in consideration, we may still vote for the implementation of
male contraceptives, as through this means `Lesser pain for greater
numbers' will be realizable at a less financial and managerial
involvement.
9

Quoted from a circular by the Committee for ICPD `94, dated 5^13 September
1994.
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HASNA BEGUM

As to female contraceptives, except performing abortion, no other


method is prohibited in Islam. Withdrawal is a natural method, and
this is widely accepted with the consent of both husband and the wife
with whom he copulates. But it needs immense self-control; it also
deprives the couples of the pleasure from sex. (Sperm is not human life
until fertilized. Hence, the sanctity of human life issue can be avoided
by this method.) Sterilization is absolutely forbidden for both male
and female because it stops future reproduction. Abortion is also
prohibited because the killing of an embryo, which is a potential
person, is not allowed if the life of the mother is not threatened.10
IV
The treatment for infertility is an important aspect in Islamic societies,
since adoption is not allowed in Islam. Only guardianship of others'
children is allowed and, in such cases, the child so taken into a family
cannot inherit any property from the respective guardians. But even in
the treatment of infertility there are certain restrictions. In Islam, as
only one's own children and some other relatives can inherit
properties, artificial insemination has to be done only by inserting the
sperm of the husband of the female patient. Surrogacy is prohibited for
a different reason. In surrogacy the embryo is fed and nourished from a
woman's blood other than its own mother. This is not considered
moral in Islam. In-vitro fertilization is allowed only when the sperm
and the eggs are from the husband and his wife respectively. As to
freezing of eggs and sperm for future use, it is not allowed in Islam for
fear of making mistakes in keeping track of the donors, which may
create complicated legal and moral issues if and when a mistake is
committed. All these precautions are safeguards against the
unforeseen complex unresolved issues, and are welcome.
Deeper consideration should be given to the new technologies,
especially regarding more seriously the consequences of future acts
before they are implemented. The western developed world is too fast
in its unknown journey regarding artificial reproductive technology,
which may cause devastation in terms of human welfare and justice.
V
It is not possible to discuss the moral issues in more detail in this short
paper. This paper, however, encourages the males' direct
involvement with the implementation of NRTs (New Reproductive
Technologies) not as agents, but as clients. Ejaculation while
10

Islamic Manual of Family Planning, draft presented in May 1996 in Cairo, p. 11.
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copulating, if male contraceptive pills are taken, is possible, with the


possibilities of resulting conception almost absent as production of
sperm is hindered by the taking of pills/injections by male partners,
as the experimentation results show. This also saves many illegal
abortions, which is a reality, and thus many women are saved from
the resulting premature death.
However, it would be appropriate here at least to mention the
opposition of radical feminists on this point. Women who desire to be
and remain single mothers do not wish to give any importance to the
choice of their male partners in making the choice regarding
conception. Their view is morally imperfect as the male sexual
partners also have the moral rights as to their own reproductive
choice. In Islamic societies this ignoring of male choice will not be
tolerated. Moreover, the concept of `single motherhood' (without a
name of a wedded father for the child) is not accepted. Hence, this
feminist objection may be overruled in the context of Islamic societies.
The implementation of male contraceptives, when available, will thus
be beneficial for Islamic societies in which polygamy is allowed and
the Islamic values are dogmatically upheld.
Department of Philosophy
University of Dhaka

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