Faced with an intensifying government effort to restrict abortion in Turkey, several thousand women and many men rallied on Sunday in Istanbul and other cities. The warning to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was clear – as summed up in one marcher's sign: “Take your hands off my body."
Now, abortion is legal in Turkey until the 10th week of pregnancy, already a fairly narrow window. Many EU countries allow terminations up to 12 weeks, while in the UK the limit is 24 weeks. The US limit varies state by state from 12 weeks to 28.
Now, AKP health minister Recep Akdag promises the government will present its new policy by late June. It will reportedly restrict abortions after the fourth week, a de facto ban because most women don’t even realise they’re pregnant until after the fourth week.
Secret plots and suicide
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other AKP officials raised the stakes recently by making strong anti-abortion statements. Erdogan said last month at a hospital opening in Istanbul: “There’s no difference between killing a foetus in the mother’s womb and killing someone after birth … This cannot be allowed.” He also said abortion and elective caesarean deliveries are “secret plots" to cripple Turkey’s economic growth by reducing the population. He said he wants to emulate the anti-abortion movements in the US and elsewhere in the west.
Health minister Akdag caused a stir when he said women who become pregnant from rape should just let the state raise the child.
Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Greater Ankara, said on TV that a mother who considered having an abortion should "kill her herself instead and not let the child bear the brunt of her mistake".
'A leap backwards'
Women's groups have reacted to the government proposal with outrage. The Guardian quotes Tugba Ozay Baki, of the Istanbul Feminist Collective, as saying, "If abortion is banned in Turkey, women will still have them, but under unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Shady characters will start to make money off their desperation." Signs at the march suggested the government should get serious about protecting women from domestic violence rather than restricting abortion.
“Decades of access to legal abortion in Turkey are at risk,” said Gauri van Gulik, global women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “If these statements are translated into legislation and policy, Turkey would take a leap backward on women’s rights.”
Aside from the natural conservatism one might expect from Erdogan and an Islamist-rooted party such as the AKP, the hostility to abortion may well be based in the continuing struggle between Turkey and its restive Kurdish minority. The birthrate in Turkey's largely Kurdish south-east is double that in the north-west.
On Friday, Deniz Ulke Aribogan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University, wrote in the Akşam newspaper that the government was trying to use its anti-abortion campaign to balance the Kurds' high birthrate: it had been undertaken for political reasons, rather than out of moral or religious concern.
Further reading: Check out Dexter Filkins' unmissable feature for the New Yorker on the rise of Erdogan and the AKP.