Updated 01 September 2016

Executing pregnant women

If a pregnant woman is sentenced to death in the 93 countries where this is legal, is the execution delayed until after she has given birth, or not?


The proposed execution of a heavily pregnant woman in Sudan for failing to recant her religion, has caused international outrage.

News24 reports that a Sudanese judge sentenced the heavily pregnant Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, 27, to hang for apostasy. Miriam is married to a Christian and is eight months pregnant.

Amnesty International reports that Meriam was raised as an Orthodox Christian, her mother’s religion, because her father, a Muslim, was reportedly absent during her childhood.

She was arrested and charged with adultery in August 2013 after a family member reportedly claimed that she was committing adultery because of her marriage to her Christian South Sudanese husband.

The court added the charge of apostasy in February 2014 when Meriam asserted that she was a Christian and not a Muslim. 

She has also been sentenced to 100 lashes for 'adultery'. Execution in Sudan is mostly by hanging but also by stoning. 

This case brings into the spotlight the issue of pregnant women, punishment and execution.

“The fact that a woman has been sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion is appalling and abhorrent.

Adultery and apostasy are acts which should not be considered crimes at all. It is flagrant breach of international human rights law,” said Manar Idriss, Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher.

Executing pregnant women

According to Deathpenaltyworldwide, in almost every country in the world, it is illegal to execute a pregnant woman. Of the 93 countries that retain the death penalty, 84 have passed laws prohibiting the execution of pregnant women.

A further 8 countries have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits the practice:  Afghanistan, Gambia, Grenada, Guyana, Liberia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tanzania.

In Afghanistan, women who are more than 6 months pregnant at the time of sentencing will not be imprisoned until 4 months later – in effect, after delivery.

In Papua New Guinea, a pregnant woman will be spared execution upon request.

The only country in the world where a pregnant woman may legally be executed is Saint Kitts and Nevis. 

The major issue at stake in the execution of a pregnant woman is whether the state sees the unborn baby as a person, or not. Killing the mother means killing the baby, who is not guilty of any crime.

Since 1387 under English common law pregnant women could not be executed, and would only be put on the execution list after the baby was delivered. This sometimes encouraged women to become pregnant again as soon as possible after the birth of the first baby.

This defence was called ‘Pleading the Belly’. In practice, the death sentence was often commuted after the birth of the baby, especially in Victorian times.

Oddly enough, in many places where the death penalty is legal, abortion is frowned upon. The biggest reason given for the latter is usually the ‘sanctity of life’.

Very few women sentenced to death

Women make up a very small percentage of people who are executed. In the United States between 1973 and 2011 they made up only 2.1% of the total. Since 1976 1375 executions have been performed in the US – and only 14 of these were of women.

There are some countries such as Belarus, Guatemala, Mongolia, Russia and Tajikistan, where men may be executed, but not women.

Read: Would you witness an execution?

Elsewhere in the world statistics bear out a similar story: in Nigeria 20 women are on Death Row, and 1014 men.

Amnesty International estimates that in China about 140 people are executed per week – but a shroud of secrecy surrounds these executions, and exact statistics on the gender of the executed are not available.

Quite a few young women have been executed in China for drug offences, but the fact that these hit the news means that the execution of a woman is still newsworthy, even in China.

Some say gender biasing affects capital sentencing decisions, and others that crimes that carry the death penalty tend to be extremely violent, and are more likely to be perpetrated by male offenders.

But violent crime is not the only offence worldwide that carries the death penalty, as can be seen in the Sudanese case mentioned above. In some countries, drug trafficking and political activism can carry the death penalty, to name but two.

Read: 10 facts on lethal injections
In South Africa in 2012 there were 129 babies who were born to incarcerated mothers and are growing up behind bars. By law babies have to leave the prison at the age of two. 

South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995, following a five-year moratorium on executions.

Read more:

Us judge blocks sale of execution drug
Executions are increasingly viewed as torture
Botched execution takes 40 minutes to kill inmate 



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