Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Islamic Medical Ethics- Some Questions and Concerns

Presented at "Islam in America Conference"
DePaul University, Chicago, September 29, 1995.

Reproduced with permission

Shahid Athar M.D., F.A.C.E.*

The introduction of newer technology in medicine in areas of life support in terminal patients, abortion, organ transplantation, biotechnical parenting, and care of AIDS patients has posed Muslim physicians and patients some new questions of ethics. The ethics is not being right or wrong, all black or all white, but as having shades of gray. It is the process of making better decisions or worse decisions compared to the worst decision. Islamic medical ethics are based on the principles of the sanctity of human life and safeguarding its values, taking the lesser of the two evils. We look upon these issues from the perspective of Muslim physicians in that we have to face the dilemma in medical ethics on a daily basis.

Life, though short as it may look on this planet, is still a precious gift from God. Since we did not create our life, nor are the owners of it, we should not have the absolute power over it either. For our soul and spirit to live in our body for a certain period can be compared to living in a beautiful, leased apartment or house. The only thing which the landlord would like the tenant to do is to live with certain rules and regulations and do things to improve upon the apartment or house rather than destroy it. We have a duty to preserve our life and to use it for glory and pleasure in the service of God as the quality of life would permit.

The guiding principle in Islamic medical ethics which is mentioned in Quran and also in the Torah is, "If anyone has saved a life, it would be as if he has saved the life of the whole of mankind." However, the question that we are faced with, in terms of saving life, is at what cost and what quality. Does the quality of life modify our decision-making process and when resources are scarce, who takes precedence, the individual or the community?

In addition to the emphasis on preserving life and the quality of life, the principles of biomedical ethics include promoting and restoring health, alleviating suffering, respecting patients' autonomy, doing medical justice, telling the truth, and doing no further harm.

We, the physicians, cannot remain aloof from the religion of our patient as we ourselves, in patients not only expect me to help them in arriving at a medical decision, but also ask me to pray for them. If we, the physicians, understand the religion of our patients, we can communicate to them better and help them make viable decisions and comply with a prescribed treatment. Sickness precipitates questions about himself and his future in the mind of a patient and drives him closer to God, whatever his distance might have been at the beginning of the illness. During illness, many patients go through spiritual growth and find their spirituality at the end. A physician's own belief may influence his treatment options for the patient's outcome. For example, a physician who is totally against abortion will never advise his patient to undergo an abortion, and a physician who does not value the sanctity of life may become a suicide-doctor. The Muslim physician, knowing that we have no right to take our own lives, should not assist his patient in that, either.

Some of the rules of medical ethics include a) respect for the autonomy and b) beneficence.  People are autonomous in the decision-making process if they are able to understand and make intelligent decisions for themselves which are intentional and voluntary. The right of patient self- determination accepted by the State is based on this principle.

The second principle is that of beneficence, which obliges persons to benefit and help others. This principle requires positive action to prevent what is bad or harmful, to remove what is bad or harmful, and to do, or promote, what is good and beneficial.The Islamic principle of forbidding what is wrong and enjoining what is good illustrates this. The knowledge of medical technology obliges Muslim physicians to offer what medical justice requires. Medical justice by itself is a principle of fair distribution of benefits and burdens. Justice requires that persons receive that which they deserve and to which they are entitled. These principles involve decisions to allocate scarce health resources. The actual implementation of this principle remains somewhat controversial. Physicians' response to individual justice differs at times with "societal" justice.

Another rule is nonmaleficence. This principle obliges persons to refrain from harming others including refraining from killing them or treating them cruelly. It is one of the non-intervention.

It also requires the person to exercise due care so that they do not unintentionally harm others such as malpractice in medical or surgical care. Let us discuss the questions of rights and obligations.

These rights mavbe considered in relation to the right to die, the right to abort a viable fetus, the right to have a child in case of infertility, or the right to donate or receive an organ, or the rights of the individual whose disease maybe due to an deviant lifestyle. Not only should we discuss the right of the individual, but also the rights of the spouse, relatives, physician and other care- givers, the unborn, and God. While discussing the rights, we must also discuss the obligations of the State, community, the individual, the spouse, and the relatives.

In the question of the right to live or die, the question is should one prolong the life or the misery. Who determines (the unconscious patient, the family, or the doctor), that the plug should be pulled and the life support system stopped? What is the definition of death, acceptable to both the medical technology and Islamic jurists? Is a living will justified? Is stopping the life support system an act of mercy, a medical decision, a murder, or a financial decision?

While Islam gives importance to saving life, it also makes it clear that dying is part of the contract with God and part of the journey on this planet. The final decision of the term is up to God. The quality of life is equally, if not more important than the life span on this planet.

Physicians and the family should realize the limitations of medical technology and should not attempt to do heroic measures for a terminally-ill patient who is in a vegetative state and cannot be resurrected to a quality of life acceptable to him. The heroic measures taken at the beginning of life like saving a premature baby are more justifiable than at the end of the life span. We consider euthanasia an act of murder. We do not see the difference between the gun used by a husband for his dying wife and the syringe used by the physician for his dying patient; both are weapons of death no matter what the intention of the killer was.

The ethical questions in the area of organ transplantation are what are the rights of the living donor, the dead body, and the recipient. To prolong life, does the recipient have a right to take away the organ from the dead? Is the sale of the organs justified? Is the taking of animal organs justified? Is accepting organs from aborted fetuses justified? Is harvesting fetuses to get more fetal tissue justified? Is the cost of transplantation worth the benefit derived from it? The total cost of heart transplantation is in excess of several hundred thousand dollars, with an average post-transplantation life of two to three years, and the quality of post-transplantation life is not necessarily the same level as it was before the development of end-stage heart disease. I have not seen a single heart transplant patient going back to work.

Transplantation, in general, is permitted especially if it is a gift from a living donor to another living person. From the Islamic perspective, transplantation from the dead to the living may not be permitted unless a free will is available before the death of the person. The relatives and the physicians should respect the rights of the dead body even though their intention to save another life is noble.

The ethical questions in cases of abortion are when does life begin? If a fetus is a living individual than is terminating its life a murder? What are the rights of the fetus? Who guards those rights? Do both parents even if unwed have the same rights over the life of the fetus? What should be done with the pregnancy that is the outcome of a rape? Should all such pregnancies be terminated?

What if the women wants to keep her baby even if she did not want it to begin with? Is promoting or not preventing abortion which will lead to more sales of aborted fetuses for transplantation of fetal tissue and organs or their delicate skin to make expensive cosmetics justified? Islam believes that life begins when the zygote is formed.

The women of pagan Arabia, before Islam, killed their infants for the fear of poverty or the shame of birth of a girl. Both of these acts have been condemned in Quran, but the women of today are killing their infants not for either cause but to sustain and enjoy the life of sexual freedom. God reminds them: "Such as took their religion to be mere amusement and play, and were deceived by the life of the world. That day shall We forget them as they forgot the meeting of this day of theirs, and as they were wont to reject Our Signs." (Qur'an 7:51).

There are many questions in the area of biotechnicall reproduction and surrogacy. Infertility is a disease and to desire to seek a cure for the disease is Islamic. However, this has to be done within the life span of an intact marriage between husband and wife. The marriage is a legal contract not only between man and a woman, but also between God and the couple. Thus the question is whether the child was born of an intact legal marriage or outside the marriage. In case of a surrogate father, who is the real father and does the child have the right to know his identity? In case of a surrogate mother, who is the real mother, the one whose ovum is being used or the one who lets her uterus be used? Is renting the uterus with money for this purpose allowed or justified?

A woman who does not want to go through pregnancy, labor, or lactation can donate her ovum every month to different women, technically, to hire a uterus and have many children. In the case of mothers renting their own uterus in place of their daughters', with the sperm of their son-in law, totally disrupts the concept of marriage and social norms and of lineage. The Qur'an is specific in terms of lineage and definition of motherhood. It says, "No one can be their mother except those who gave them birth" (Qur'an 58:2). Qur'an also says, "He has established the relationship of lineage and marriage" (Qur'an 25:54).

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has become the plague of the century. In the United States alone, over 220,000 have been diagnosed and half of them have already died. The ethical questions as to the care of AIDS are:

  • Who will pay for the cost of the billion of dollars spent on the care of AIDS patients since the insurance companies do not insure them?
  • should the AIDS patient be quarantined and forced to change their lifestyle?
  • should IV users be given free, clean needles, syringes and drugs since IV drug use and AIDS are very easily correlated?
  • should HIV positive carriers carry an ID card?
  • should everyone be tested for HIV without their knowledge, and if so, what should be done with the positive results in terms of employment and medical care?
  • does paying for AIDS cases by the public or the government mean that they endorse the lifestyle of the patient? and
  • should Muslim physicians care for AIDS patients?

The Islamic response to AIDS is, in brief, directed at a different level, firstly, to prevent the disease by having a sexual lifestyle prescribed by God. In those cases where AIDS can be acquired without a sexual contact, for example, by transfusion in case of hemophiliacs, all measures should be taken to protect the individual. After AIDS has been acquired, it should be treated like any other chronic disease.

We never question the lifestyle of patients with other diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, nor do we discriminate against them or stop caring for them. Thus Muslim physicians have an obligation to continue caring for AIDS patients while taking the necessary precautions for themselves at the same time when participating in preventive measures and education.

The Rights of God

Last but really most important, nobody seems to talk about the rights of the Creator. The Creator of life and death has certain rights over His Creations which man should acknowledge. They are:

  • He should be believed in,
  • His will and injunction should be sought,
  • Once known, His and His messengers' decisions should be given preference over man's ever changing opinion (Qur'an 33:36),
  • No deliberate attempt should be made to go against the will of God (36:77).