A NEW debate is raging on in Muslim-dominated Malaysia over the legality of abortion in cases where pregnant mothers are infected with the Zika virus, which puts the unborn baby in danger of being born with microcephaly.
On Tuesday, the religious head or “mufti” for the Federal Territories said in his official website that in such a case, mothers are allowed to abort the child.
The mufti, Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, reportedly cited a 1990 decision by the Islamic Judicial Council of the Muslim World League, a Mecca-based international Islamic organization, noting it had approved abortion in cases of thalassemia, a blood disorder, even 16 weeks into the pregnancy.
“We are inclined towards the decision by the Islamic Juridical Council regarding thalassemia that can be referred to for the Zika virus issue, if studies from trusted medical experts show that foetuses infected with the Zika virus may have various disabilities that could affect the family’s life and that of the baby itself.
“In such circumstances, consent from both parents who have obtained clear understanding about the issue can be taken into account to abort the foetus,” he was quoted as saying in a Malay Mail Online report.
Malaysian civil law, however, forbids abortion, except in cases where the continuance of the pregnancy would put the mother’s life at risk. Section 312 of the Malaysian Penal Code on “causing miscarriage” stipulates that illegal abortion is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and a fine.
Today, Malaysia’s Health Minister Dr S. Subramaniam disagreed with the cleric’s opinion on abortion, citing the law.
He said that while he welcomed the mufti’s views, the law clearly states that abortion is illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk. The mufti’s stance on the matter, he added, must be accepted by all other religious heads of state.
“That is what is allowed in our system which had taken into consideration the religious stand. If the Federal Territories Mufti had said this (abortion allowed), this must be accepted by other Muftis.
“If they come out with a statement, then it is easier for us to advise the patient,” he was quoted as saying in The Star.
The minister also suggested that the National Fatwa Council debate the matter and come up with decision that the government could use to prepare a guideline.
Dr Subramaniam pointed out that only between 1 and 5 percent of those with a Zika infection may end up delivering babies with disabilities.
“That means more than 90 percent will be all right. That is why it is important to follow the doctor’s advice,” he was quoted saying.
Last Thursday, Malaysia announced its first imported case of Zika in a 58-year-old woman who had visited Singapore, where the official number of Zika infections reached 242 yesterday.
Among those in Singapore who have been infected are 11 Malaysians who are living and/or working in the city-state.
A Zika infection can have serious consequences on pregnant women and their unborn children. If infected, the virus can lead to microcephaly, a congenital condition that causes incomplete brain development. Babies with the infection are typically born with abnormally small heads.