Turkey's culture wars heat up after PM equates abortion with murder
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to effectively ban abortions. It's the latest signal his party aims to shape Turkey's secular political system along more religious lines.
Obstetrician Ayse Akin fought for 13 years to legalize abortions in Turkey after seeing dozens of women die trying to perform them on themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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“It was shocking,” she recalls. “They used chemicals from match tips, soap, or feathers. In one week alone at my hospital we had three fatal cases of self-induced abortion.”
Now, 29 years after she achieved that goal, she is preparing to resume the fight amid signs that the Islamist-rooted government intends to effectively outlaw it once again.
She's not alone.
Thousands of women have protested across the country since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month denounced abortion as "murder," vowing to revise the current law allowing termination in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
“There is no difference between killing a baby in its mother’s stomach or killing it after birth,” Mr. Erdogan said on May 25, in the first of a series of condemnatory speeches.
His unexpected campaign against abortion has opened a new chapter in a simmering culture war between secular, Westernized Turks and the pious majority that forms Erdogan’s base.
“He’s launching a new front in the culture war and I think politically this will serve him, because a majority of the country is probably against abortion,” says Mustafa Akyol, a newspaper columnist and author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.
Media reports suggest the government may set a new limit of four weeks, when many women may not know they are pregnant.
Molding Turkey along more religious lines
Erdogan's critics see the latest issue as the clearest sign yet that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) intends to remold Turkey along more religious lines.
The AKP has often sought to roll back the curbs on religion imposed by the country’s strictly secular political system.
Most recently in 2010, the government repealed a regulation banning women from wearing Islamic head scarves at university.
“In the past, it was mostly about conservatives being on the defensive, asking for their basic freedoms,” says Mr. Akyol.
Now, after a landslide election win last year delivered the AKP a third consecutive term in power, the conservatives are on the offensive.
“The government feels in a position of strength and is using it to put forth Islamic policies,” says Ayse Önal, a journalist who supported the AKP when it first won power in 2002 with vows to steer Turkey into the European Union. “Because abortion is an issue of contention in the West as well, the prime minister is using it as an acceptable front for the general Sunni conservative agenda.”
Erdogan’s motivations, however, may be as much economic as religious.
He has vowed to lift Turkey into the world’s top 10 economies by 2023, and often states his belief that women can fuel that rise by having at least three children.
In his opening salvo against abortion, he claimed that the procedure – along with Caesarean sections – was part of a plot to hold back Turkey’s population.
“We have to know that it is an insidious plan to eliminate our nation from the world stage,” he said, in comments that provoked derision from his opponents, but reflect the nationalist siege mentality often adopted by Turkish politicians courting popular support.