Splitting Along Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Lines: Abortion Debate in Turkey

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Abortion is a controversial issue due to its moral, ethical, practical, religious, and political aspects. Countless number of politicians, clerics, doctors, and representatives of women’s associations have in the past spoken out about this medical procedure and actively participated in debates, for or against abortion.

To mention a few of their generic arguments, in these debates pro-life side, consisting of those who emphasize the right of the unborn child to be born, argues that human life begins at contraception; therefore, abortion is merely murder of a person. Pro-choice side, consisting of those who emphasize women’s right to decide whether they wish to bring a fetus to term, disagrees and in response argues that personhood at conception is a religious belief, not a provable biological fact.1 Pro-life side argues that abortion should be illegal and must be stopped to protect the right to life. Pro-choice side disagrees and notes that laws have in the past failed to stop abortion and only relegated it to back-alley operations. Similarly, pro-life side believes that the right of the unborn to live supersedes any right of a woman to control her own body. Pro-choice side disagrees and supports the idea that women do own and control their own bodies.2

Such arguments for or against abortion go on and on. All are valid and important contributions to the public debate revolving around abortion, and make one question his or her own perception of the moral and legal controversies of the procedure.

As of last week, the issue has a brand new dimension in Turkey, thanks to Turkish Prime Minister (PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the Women’s Branch Congress of Justice and Development Party (AKP) on May 27, 2012, PM Erdogan shared his view on abortion and said that “I see abortion as murder… I am asking you: what’s the difference between killing a baby inside a mother’s womb and killing a baby after birth?”3 More importantly, he described abortion (and caesarean births) as “a sneaky plan to wipe the country off the world stage” by slowing the growth of Turkey’s population.4 Thus, Erdogan not only enlightened and warned the citizens of Turkey about a so-called emerging security threat, but also decided on behalf of women once again, as he previously did through promoting his own “at least three-children” policy and backing a later abandoned law that criminalized adultery in 2004.5

As expected, Erdogan’s words sparked a hot debate over the current abortion law in Turkey. To illustrate, immediately after his statements, Aylin Nazlıaka, an Ankara deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said that “the prime minister ought to quit doing politics over women’s bodies. To put it in a nutshell, I say the prime minister ought to quit standing guard over women’s vaginas.”6 In a similar vein, Canan Gullu, the head of the Federation of Women’s Associations said that “[c]aesarean births and abortion have legal footing in Turkey. The prime minister’s attempt to change the country’s agenda by attacking women is a grave mistake.”7 Complaints and criticisms were no less intense on social media networks; some discussants even went too far and labeled those who criticized the attempt to change the abortion law as “loose women”, as if PM Erdogan’s views were absolute and indisputable.

Despite furor and the statements of Fatma Sahin, the Minister of Family and Social Policy, emphasizing that every family had the right to plan its size and there would be no change in Turkey’s abortion law,8 Recep Akdag, Minister of Health, announced that the ministry was planning to complete its work on a draft bill on abortion next month and present it to the Cabinet.9 He even stated that “people are asking about cases in which the mother has been through something bad. If necessary, the state will look after such babies.”10 In other words, another critical public debate issue was concluded amidst protests of women’s associations and abortion-rights individuals, without a meaningful debate over abortion and abortion law in Turkey, and without even consulting women.

Turkey enacted the law in question in 1983 and made abortion legal in all circumstances within ten weeks of pregnancy. After ten weeks, abortion is legal only if the mother’s life is at risk, if her physical or mental health is in danger or if her pregnancy involves fetal abnormalities.11 The mother’s consent is required. If the mother is married, the husband’s consent is also required, but can be waived if the risk to the mother’s life constitutes an immediate danger. The latest figures show abortions on the rise throughout the country, from around 60,000 in 2009 to nearly 70,000 in 2011.12

Indeed, abortion is as controversial abroad as it is in Turkey. Many countries struggle to strike a balance between the rights of pregnant women and the rights of unborn. To this end, some countries, such as Republic of Ireland, put strict conditions and allow women to have an abortion only if they say they are suicidal,13 and some, such as Brazil, make abortion legal only in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in grave danger.14 Some, on the other hand, make it legal for any reason at any stage of pregnancy, such as Canada.15

In regard to the effectiveness of making abortion illegal, a comprehensive global study of abortion conducted in 2007 has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.16 The same study has indicated that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal, but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely. The study further indicated that about 20 million abortions that would be considered unsafe are performed each year. In relation to that, World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that 68,000 women die as a result of complications from those abortions, most in countries where abortion is illegal.17 In addition to the health-related dangers, there is also a grave danger that back-alley practitioners would make huge amounts of money out of desperate women, in case of illegal abortion.

With full awareness of the issue’s difficulty and complexity, it is beyond the scope of this piece to take a side and present a strong argument for or against the necessity of making abortion legal or illegal. Rather, the aim of this piece is to draw attention to how undemocratic and authoritarian practices have gradually become the new normal in Turkey. Even an issue as important and controversial as abortion is concluded without even taking the concerns of the relevant parties and demands of women into consideration. Prime Minister Erdogan said abortion is murder. Period. End of debate. Drafting of a new bill. Changing of the abortion law. Moving on to the voting procedure. Majority voted in favor. Passed by majority. House recessed. Women are saved. Then come the self-congratulatory and illusionary remarks regarding how advanced Turkish democracy is, combined with jingoistic remarks targeting the masterminds of “the sneaky plan to wipe Turkey off the world stage.” Claps, cheers, and tears follow.

In addition to revealing the imperfections of Turkish democracy, this raging debate– whatever the outcome of the move to change the abortion law may be next month–made one thing clear: as if the country is not polarized enough, the abortion debate initiated by Erdogan once again deepened the ideological, political, religious, and ethical fault-lines within the society, this time without leaving a chance to close those lines.

Despite all the fuss, abortion is not the biggest problem or challenge women in Turkey face today. As argued elsewhere, about 42% of women in Turkey still experience physical or sexual violence inflicted by a husband or relative at some point in their lives. Honor killings are still a source of shame for the country. The country is still short of shelters for domestic violence survivors. Illiteracy, low labor force and political participation are still bleeding wounds: there is only one female minister in the Cabinet. On different indexes, Turkey still ranks low, as the country ranked 83rd on the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index in 2010 and 126th out of 131 on The World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report.18

If the goal is to “protect” or “guard” women in Turkey, the above-mentioned imperfections should be addressed first, instead of attempting to change a law upon the statements of the Prime Minister. Imposing yet another top-down policy without their consent does not help women, it rather marginalizes and degrades them. “Woman must have her freedom, the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers – and before it can be his, it is hers alone,”19 said Margaret Sanger. So true. It should not be a government or state to look after babies. It should not be a Prime Minister to decide whether abortion should be legal or illegal. It should instead be women who decide what’s best for them and their unborn children, and what to do with their own health and bodies.

Show 19 footnotes

  1. “Legal Abortion: Arguments Pro & Con,” Choice Matters. Available at: http://www.choicematters.org/articles/legal-abortion-arguments-pro-con/
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ayla Albayrak, “Turkey’s Premier Wades Into Abortion Debate, Sparks Furor,” The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2012. Available at: http://blogs.wsj.com/emergingeurope/2012/05/28/turkeys-premier-wades-into-abortion-debate-sparks-furor/?mod=google_news_blog
  4. Steven Ertelt, “Turkey Prime Minister Calls Abortion Murder, Population Control,” Life News, May 28, 2012. Available at: http://www.lifenews.com/2012/05/28/turkey-prime-minister-calls-abortion-murder-population-control/
  5. “Abortion is ‘murder,’ says Turkey’s PM,” Hurriyet Daily News, May 26, 2012. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/abortion-is-murder-says-turkeys-pm.aspx?pageID=238&nID=21665&NewsCatID=338
  6. “Abortion Sparks Raging Debate in Turkey,” Hurriyet Daily News, May 28, 2012. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/abortion-sparks-raging debate.aspx?pageID=238&nid=21740
  7. Stoyan Zaimov, “Turkish PM Branded ‘Woman’s Enemy’ After Linking Abortion to Murder,” The Christian Post, May 29, 2012. Available at: http://www.christianpost.com/news/turkish-pm-branded-womans-enemy-after-linking-abortion-to-murder-75702/
  8. Ayla Albayrak, “Turkey’s Premier Wades Into Abortion Debate, Sparks Furor.”
  9. “Health Minister says Anti-Abortion Bill to be Ready Next Month,” Today’s Zaman, May 30, 2012. Available at: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-281918-health-minister-says-anti-abortion-bill-to-be-ready-next-month.html
  10. “State to Take Care of Babies Born Out of Rape,” Hurriyet Daily News, May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/state-to-take-care-of-babies-born-out-of-rape.aspx?pageID=238&nid=22017
  11. “Abortion Laws Around the World,” The Pew Forum, September 30, 2012. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/Abortion/Abortion-Laws-Around-the-World.aspx
  12. “Soke Eden Kurtaj ve Sezeryen Raporu,” {Shocking Abortion and Caesarean Report} Sabah, May 30, 2012. Available at: http://www.sabah.com.tr/Gundem/2012/05/30/soke-eden-kurtaj-ve-sezaryen-raporu
  13. “Europe’s Abortion Rules,” BBC, February 12, 2007. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6235557.stm
  14. “Abortion Laws Around the World.”
  15. Ibid.
  16. Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Legal or Not, Abortion Rates Compare,” The New York Times, October 12, 2007. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/world/12abortion.html
  17. “Kurtaj Yasagi Yilda 68 Bin Kadini Olduruyor,” {Illegal Abortion Kills 68,000 Women Annually} Bianet, May 29, 2012. Available at: http://bianet.org/bianet/insan-haklari/138708-kurtaj-yasagi-yilda-68-bin-kadini-olduruyor#.T8UCGKW25dQ.facebook
  18. Arda Bilgen, “Women in Turkey: Are They Born to Suffer?” European Strategist, October 23, 2012. Available at: http://www.eurstrat.eu/2011/10/women-in-turkey-are-they-born-to-suffer/
  19. Jine Johnson Lewis, “Margaret Sanger Quotes,” About.com. Available at: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/quotes/a/margaret_sanger.htm

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