The Bizarre Islamic Reason Pakistan Shut Down A Breast Milk Bank

Pakistan’s first-ever human milk bank, established in June, temporarily suspended operations after sparking criticism from religious organizations and scholars. The country’s Health Ministry announced it would seek further guidance from the Council of Islamic Ideology.

In partnership with UNICEF and the Pakistan Pediatric Association, the Sindh Institute of Child Health and Neonatology (SICHN) announced that it would open Pakistan’s first human milk bank facility in Karachi, calling it a “significant milestone in maternal health.” 

However, soon after the project was launched, it ignited an intense and passionate debate on social media. Some supported the initiative, saying that establishing Pakistan’s first human milk bank is crucial in promoting infant health and nutrition in the South Asian, Muslim-majority nation. However, the human milk bank also garnered intense criticism among religious circles, saying the move violates Islamic law regarding breastfeeding.

In a press statement, SICHN said they launched the project after obtaining a fatwa, or Islamic edict, from Jamia Darul Uloom Karachi, which provided the facility “with the necessary religious endorsement” to proceed. 

“This fatwa was critical in ensuring that our efforts were in harmony with Islamic teachings, providing reassurance to the community and stakeholders involved,” the institute said.

The pre-conditions cited in the fatwa to establish the milk bank are: “Complete data of women contributing to a ‘lot’ of milk should be maintained and shared with mothers whose babies are provided that milk so that a kinship record is maintained; this service should be provided free of cost, and no concept of selling or buying should be there; Muslim children should only be provided milk from Muslim mothers; families should also be told about the kinship concept; milk should be cleaned and free from bacteria and from healthy mothers; this should only be given to babies less than 34 weeks of gestation, not have enough mother’s milk and are in need for medical reasons; personnel should be monitoring this activity with a database.

However, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, a retired Federal Shariat Court judge and leading Islamic scholar from Karachi, issued a fatwa declaring the establishment of the milk bank illegal. The Darul Uloom also revised its fatwa, which prompted SICHN to suspend the project’s operations.

A recent revised fatwa issued by Darul Uloom Karachi dated 16th June 2024 has prompted us to discontinue the functionality of the Human Milk Bank. This decision is in compliance with the updated religious guidance and reflects our ongoing commitment to operate within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence,” SICHN said in its statement.

The institute also said in its statement that it will seek guidance from Darul Uloom Karachi and the Council of Islamic Ideology, the constitutional body in Pakistan responsible for providing legal advice on Islamic matters. 

Moving forward, we will seek further guidance on this issue from both Darul Uloom Karachi and the Council of Islamic Ideology. These esteemed institutions are pillars of religious scholarship, and their insights will be invaluable in navigating this complex issue. We are dedicated to ensuring that our healthcare initiatives are not only scientifically sound but also religiously compliant,” The statement said. 

In its revised fatwa, the Darul Uloom Karachi said that after deliberations, it concluded that it was extremely difficult and even nearly impossible to practically implement the preconditions cited in its earlier fatwa issued in December 2023. The Council of Islamic Ideology ruled against the legitimacy of human milk banks in 2014.

The religious opposition to human milk banks stems from the concept of “milk kinship” or rada’ah in Islam. Under this concept, a woman who breastfeeds a child not biologically related to her develops this kinship, a relationship similar to blood ties, which forbids marriage between breastfed siblings within Islamic legal frameworks.

Iran is among the few countries in the Islamic world that maintains an active human milk bank. The bank was established in 2016 in Al-Zahraa Teaching Hospital in the country's northeast. 

A human milk bank, also called a breast milk bank or lactarium, is a service that collects, screens, processes, pasteurizes, and dispenses human breast milk donated by nursing mothers unrelated to the recipient infants by prescription. Pasteurized donor breast milk can be a practical approach to feeding and even a lifesaver, especially for babies of mothers who are unable to breastfeed or produce enough breast milk.

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