February 23, 2024

A bioethical dilemma for sharia law

Most of our readers probably live in countries where bioethics often revolves around the proper use of sophisticated medical technologies. My attention was drawn this week to a case in Sudan, where engagement with the technology is fairly simple: shackles and a noose.

At the centre of this case is Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese wife of an American citizen. In May, while she was heavily pregnant with her second child, she was found guilty of apostasy from Islam and sentenced to 100 lashes and death as soon as she weaned the baby. She refused to renounce her faith.

The Islamic government in Sudan interprets apostasy with a great deal of latitude. Ms Ibrahim was born to a Coptic Orthodox mother and a Muslim father who deserted the family when she was six. She was raised as a Christian but in the eyes of the Islamic state, she remains a Muslim. Marrying a Christian constitutes apostasy in Sharia law.

The cruelty of her confinement suggests that Sharia law also presents bioethical issues. Ms Ibrahim gave birth in jail but remained shackled throughout her labour. “I gave birth chained,” she said. “Not cuffs – but chains on my legs. I couldn’t open my legs so the women had to lift me off the table. I wasn’t lying on the table.” Now she believes that her baby is disabled because of the difficult birth. “I don’t know in the future whether she’ll need support to walk or not.”

After an enormous amount of pressure, Ms Ibrahim was released from prison in June. But after she bought a ticket to the US, she ended up in jail once again. She is still awaiting permission to leave. A UNESCO chair for biosciences ethics was established at the University of Khartoum in 2012. I wonder if the University would be interested in looking into Ms Ibrahim’s case.


Michael Cook
Something is wrong if a woman is shackled while giving birth.