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.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey, last week.
A Turkish woman holds a banner that reads 'state, take your hands off my body' as thousands of abortion rights demonstrators stage the largest protest yet against plans by Turkey's Islamic-rooted government to curb abortion, which critics say will amount to a virtual ban, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 3.

Obstetrician Ayse Akin fought for 13 years to legalize abortions in Turkey after seeing dozens of women die trying to perform them on themselves.

“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.

Critics: Ban would lead to unsafe abortions

Critics argue that an effective ban would not stop the procedure but drive it underground, causing deaths and health risks and deaths to women who seek it.

“The number of unsafe abortions in Turkey will increase, there’s no doubt about that,” says Professor Akin, a former general director of the family planning department at Turkey’s health ministry and now a professor at Baskent University in Ankara

She claims the AKP is also neglecting family planning programs aimed at forestalling unwanted pregnancies. Islam strictly forbids premarital sex.

Akin fears a return to the days of the 1950s, when abortion was outlawed and access to birth control tightly restricted as part of a population growth policy.

“In 1955, there were 500,000 illegal abortions in Turkey, and 10,000 women died,” she says.

Turkey reversed this policy with its first family planning law in 1965, eventually legalizing abortion in 1983.

Before then, 250 out of 10,000 pregnancies led to the death of the mother – the majority caused by illegal abortions, according to a report by the Turkish Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

“[After legalization], all these deaths due to abortion disappeared,” says Akin.

55 percent against a ban on abortions

It remains to be seen whether this argument will hold weight in the starkly polarized climate in which Erdogan has thrived as prime minister.

"Erdogan is a politician of controversy and confrontation," says Akyol, the columnist. "He's built his career as a defiant champion of the conservatives."

Comments by AKP politicians in relation to rape victims have heightened an already febrile atmosphere.

Ayhan Sefer Ustun, head of Parliament’s Human Rights Commission, caused particular outrage when he said that abortion “is a greater crime than the deed of the rapist.”

But yesterday, Health Minister Recep Akdag sought to dampen the debate by promising that the government would seek a "middle way" between the rights of women and their unborn babies.

Many accuse the government of cynically engineering the debate in order to deflect critical media attention away from a botched air raid by the Turkish military in December that killed 34 civilians.

“It’s clear political manipulation,” says Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a newspaper columnist and human rights lawyer. “[Our society is] discussing this just because our prime minister wants us to discuss it.”

Will abortion prove to be a galvanizing issue for Erdogan and the AKP?

In one poll released June 11 by the Habertürk newspaper, 55.5 percent of respondents were against a ban.The Islamic faith itself is generally opposed to abortion, but there are varying strands of opinion, with many imams holding that the fetus is conferred a soul in the fourth month of pregnancy, according to Akyol.

Opponents to a change in the current law include prominent female Islamists.

“In this country not everyone is Muslim, nor do they all share the same opinion,” said Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an Islamist feminist writer, in an interview with Aksam newspaper. “We need to find an answer to the question: ‘Why do women not want to have their babies?’”

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