When Fatima Basha became pregnant at the age of 34, she realized her body wouldn’t be able to handle another child.
The mother of nine children in Syria had experienced a couple of miscarriages earlier, a stillbirth and also suffered from gastrointestinal problems that often left her weak and fatigued.
“She and my father knew that her body could not withstand the trauma of another childbirth,” her eldest son, Dr. Yahya Basha, 76, of West Bloomfield, recalls. “I was about 16 at the time, and vividly remember my father confiding in me, saying their intent was to terminate the pregnancy.”
They visited several doctors to get an abortion, but she was unable to find one to perform the procedure, Basha said. Fatima soon died during childbirth in 1962, unable to survive the bleeding.
“Coming back from school, we were taken to the hospital,” Basha said, weeping as he recalled seeing his mother dead on a hospital bed when he was 16 years old.
Decades later, the memory of his mother’s death still haunts Basha and has compelled him to speak out in favor of abortion rights. When he read last month that Roe v. Wade may be overturned after a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion was leaked, Basha said thoughts of his mother came flooding back.
“All the painful memories came out bursting,” Basha said. “Like a bottle exploded in my brain.”
‘I must speak out’
Basha is a noted physician who founded Basha Diagnostics, a medical testing company headquartered on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak that does about 100,000 tests a year with several offices in metro Detroit. He’s also a prominent community leader in the Arab American and Muslim communities who often meets with elected officials in Michigan, visits the White House, and has often donated to candidates from both parties. Just within the past two weeks, he lunched with U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Waterford, at his Royal Oak office and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel visited him on a recent Friday.
Basha worries if the Supreme Court overturns the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally, women like his mother will suffer.
“Women have to have a choice,” Basha said. “The recent leak … made me realize that I must speak out. What I want everyone to know, including my brothers and sisters in the Muslim community, is that we all must act to protect access to legal abortions in our state.”
Overturning Roe v. Wade “is too much and too dangerous,” Basha said. “Because my mother could not receive the abortion needed to save her life, we’ve all struggled to live out our lives without her. It left a hole in my heart that will never heal.”
The son of a candy store owner who struggled to make a living, Basha immigrated 50 years ago to the U.S. for a medical residency after excelling in school in Syria. Since then, he has helped bring siblings and other relatives to the U.S., where there are about 30 medical doctors in the Basha family.
Basha said that while he is speaking out for a woman’s right to choose, he also “respects religions greatly” and often is in dialogue with people of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other faiths about abortion. He said he also respects families and notes that he has seven children of his own and thirteen grandchildren.
Basha’s story also offers a perspective on abortion and the Muslim world at a time when some have made bigoted remarks. In the national discussion about abortion in recent months, there have been Islamophobic comments at times trying to link the views of conservatives in the U.S. to Muslims and their faith. On social media, phrases such as the “Texas Taliban” are used by some liberals to mock strict abortion laws in Texas. On the “Daily Show” last month, host Trevor Noah also made similar comparisons when talking about abortion, saying: “After all these years of the right screaming about sharia law, it turns out they were just jealous.”
Noah’s remarks and others like it were criticized by Muslim advocates who said it’s wrong to target their religion on this issue.
Islamic clerics and experts note that Islam generally has a more liberal and nuanced view on abortion compared with the official views of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant groups.
The Vatican says life begins at conception and thus all abortions are not allowed. In Michigan, Catholic Church leaders are battling in court this year to preserve abortion restrictions under a 1931 law that could go back into effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned. In contrast, abortion is allowed in Islam in many cases, with different schools of thought offering varying perspectives. And local Muslim leaders have not been active in anti-abortion movements.
“A lot of the religious people, they are divided over the issue,” Basha said.
Basha said that based on his understanding of his faith, abortion is allowed before a certain number of months during the pregnancy, according to three of the four main schools of thought within Sunni Islam, which he practices. The fourth school of thought allows abortion, but under a shorter time period, he said. Islam also allows for contraception use, unlike the Catholic faith. Other Muslim leaders in metro Detroit and experts have varying views.
In Islam, the issue of abortion is not “black and white, a yes or no answer,” said Dr. Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “It’s decided case by case.”
Al-Hadidi said he’s speaking as a practicing doctor and a Muslim, but not as an Islamic leader or expert.
“In Islam, abortion is permitted under certain circumstances, depending on the state of the pregnancy and the health of the mother,” he said.
Aborting for financial reasons is not permissible, he said.
“Most scholars agree that it is permissible in the first 30 to 45 days,” Al-Hadidi said.
Al-Hadidi worries that the abortion issue is splitting the country and he hopes there can be a way for both sides to reconcile based on medical science.
“We should avoid both extremes and have a balance in our behavior toward this very critical issue,” said Imam Mohammed Elahi, leader of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights. “Generally speaking, we are against abortion, and we are for life. But there are exceptions.”
Moreover, Elahi said, it’s hypocritical for politicians who are pro-life, but then don’t take action on issues such as gun violence and war.
Other religious communities in metro Detroit have also been wrestling with the issue of abortion. There are a variety of opinions within the faiths that reflect denominational and philosophical differences.
“Judaism is both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life,'” said Rabbi Aaron Starr, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, the largest and oldest Conservative synagogue in Michigan. “When the mother’s life is determined to be at risk, then abortion is not a choice; in such a situation, abortion becomes an obligation. Protecting the mother’s life always takes precedence over preserving the fetus, until the child emerges. … If the fetus poses no threat to the woman’s body, she is prohibited from aborting.”
While some identify as anti-abortion in the Jewish community, they may still be supportive of the right to an abortion.
“Because protecting life is among the highest Jewish values, access to safe abortions is — for Jews — a moral and religious requirement,” Starr said.
“Our community is very committed to separation of church and state,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of metro Detroit/American Jewish Committee. “When human life begins is really a religious question.”
Last month, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, the Right Rev. Bonnie Perry, and other community leaders, met with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Sterling Heights, where the topic of abortion was discussed.
“I do not believe that any one religion should be able to impart its views or its values on another group of people,” Perry said, reiterating the views she expressed at the meeting. “Abortion should be safe, accessible and rare.”
Other Protestants, such as those in the evangelical community or more conservative factions within mainline Protestantism, support the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The Michigan Catholic Conference, which is the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in the state, is battling Whitmer in court to preserve the 1931 state law banning abortion that may go into effect is Roe v. Wade is overturned. The law only allows abortion in cases when the life of the mother is threatened, but Nessel and experts have said that exception is written vaguely and could lead to a ban on all abortions.
But the views of many Catholics — as well as evangelicals, Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths — often differ from the views of leaders.
Almost half of Catholics, 48%, support abortion being legal, according to a 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Among Muslims, it’s 51%. For white evangelical Protestants, it’s 31% and for Jews, it’s 70%.
Life in Syria
Dr. Basha’s father, Mahmood Basha, was an orphan. Mahmood’s dad died when he was 4 and his mom when he was a teenager.
He struggled while raising children with his wife, Fatima, but things started to improve after he opened a small business making candy.
They lived in Hama, a city in Syria that became known later for being largely destroyed by the Syrian government as it crushed an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
Growing up, Yahya Basha thought he might go into business like his father, but he encouraged him to instead go into medicine, impressed with the doctors he encountered when he visited the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
“After my mom’s death, I focused on studying day and night,” Basha said.
He did well on his exams and earned admission to a medical school in Damascus, from which he graduated.
Success in Royal Oak
In 1972, Basha immigrated to the U.S., working as a medical intern at Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit and then completing his residency in radiology at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
He worked several jobs as a radiologist in local hospitals before buying a struggling radiology practice in downtown Royal Oak in 1978.
Basha said he lost $200,000 in his first year. He decided to buy a small ultrasound machine, which he would bring to doctor’s offices so patients wouldn’t have to travel to another location. He founded Basha Diagnostics in 1980 and today the business has grown into a successful operation that administers X-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds and other tests, serving tens of thousand of patients a year.
Basha puts in long hours at his jobs, often working seven days a week. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his offices have been more busy than usual. In recent years, he developed prostate and kidney cancer and has high blood pressure.
Basha is active in supporting Arab American and Muslim groups across Michigan, donating to groups and speaking up on civil rights issues. He has been outspoken in support of attempts to bring democracy to Syria and also helping Syrian refugees.
He was known for supporting Republicans such as former Gov. John Engler and President George W. Bush, whom he would meet at the airport during presidential visits to Michigan. But he has also been supportive of Democratic politicians, especially in recent years, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with Democrats, when he ran for president.
Standing on the fourth floor of his office in Royal Oak in front of an MRI machine, Basha is overcome with emotion as he recalls his mom.
“The whole thing is so painful,” Basha said. “Even the thought of what we all went through all those years ago still overwhelms me with sorrow. The emotional pain of the loss remains so overwhelming.”
Asked why he is now speaking out publicly about his mom’s death and his support for abortion rights, Basha said it was because of the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. Before, he thought that while there were some threats, the 1973 court decision would stand and ensure the right to choose.
“I’ve always avoided discussing it publicly, until now,” Basha said.
“I’ve lived in a country where abortion is illegal, and have experienced firsthand the grief and hardship such a ban can cause,” he said. “I came to America because of the freedom and opportunity this country offers. For the past 50 years, one of those freedoms has been for people to make their own choices regarding reproductive health, the kind of choice that could have saved my mother’s young life if it had been available to her.
Basha said he wants to “sound the warning of what others will face if we do not fight to protect all of our rights, including the right to reproductive freedom.”
“As I can personally attest,” he said, “it is literally a matter of life and death.”
Contact Niraj Warikoo: email@example.com or Twitter @nwarikoo