Turkish Abortion debate: The Council of Europe criticizes the proposed ban on abortion

The Council of Europe committee, which issued its declaration following an initiative by Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Gülsün Bilgehan at its Paris meeting June 4, expressed its deep concern at Health Minister Recep Akdağ’s remarks, in which he said legislation outlawing abortion in all circumstances would be presented by the end of June.

A presidential campaign over women’s right to choose

PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insatiable desire to become the next president of Turkey has finally reached a place that should be sacred even in the dirty game called Turkish politics:  Women’s bodies.  Mr. Erdogan’s  dream of an executive presidency is highly unpopular with the voter, and his popularity ratings have been falling steadily since he introduced the most backward and damaging legislation to Turkish education, namely the 4+4+4.  His sudden interest in banning abortion serves  a second  purpose: To obfuscate the national agenda which had otherwise been preoccupied with the Uludere massacre and AKP’s assumed mantle of impunity. Erdogan has officially launched his 2014 presidential campaign, trampling  Kurds, students and women in his rush to garner that very critical conservative-nationalist vote.

Eurasianet commented on the abortion debate with the following by-line:

Talk about changing the subject. For the last few weeks, Turkey had been consumed by a heated debate over last December’s Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed near the Iraqi border after the Turkish military mistakenly thought them to be Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants. Questions about the slow pace of the investigation into the incident, new allegations about the role that intelligence provided by American drones played in the attack, and some truly unfortunate remarks by Turkey’s Interior Minister all threatened to turn the months-old incident into a major headache for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

And then, suddenly, the Uludere incident turned into a debate about abortion and a Turkish woman’s right to choose. Speaking to a May 26 meeting of the AKP’s women’s branches in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made what would have been a previously inconceivable connection between abortion of the state’s killing of 34 civilians. “I see abortion as murder, and I call upon those circles and members of the media who oppose my comments: You live and breathe Uludere. I say every abortion is an Uludere,” Erdogan told the gathered women. The PM further suggested that abortion and Turkey’s high rate of caesarean section births, which he claimed make it harder for a woman to give birth again, are part of a “hidden” plot to reduce Turkey’s population.

Erdogan’s words caught most Turks off guard. Abortion, legal up to an already restrictive ten weeks of pregnancy in Turkey, has never really factored into the country’s political debate. And, as the Wall Street Journal points out, the abortion rate in Turkey has been steadily falling, going from 18 percent in 1993 to 10 percent in 2008. Still, only days after the PM’s speech, Turkey’s Health Minister said a new bill that would limit the period in which abortions can be performed was being prepared (and even suggested the state was ready to take care of any unwanted babies born in the future). The government-appointed head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, who acts as Turkey’s top cleric, also stepped into the debate, saying that Islamic law considers abortion to me “murder.”

So what gives? Considering the mounting criticism the AKP was facing over the Uludere incident, human rights lawyer and Today’s Zaman columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz says changing the subject to abortion makes perfect sense, especially considering Erdogan’s ambitions to become Turkey’s next president:

When our prime minister realized that criticism of his government over the Uludere incident was not going to end, he all of a sudden came out with this “abortion issue.” Actually, this is quite a successful public relations campaign. The prime minster wants to get conservative and religious people on his side, people who have also been criticizing him over Uludere and other issues for some time. If you ask me, with this abortion issue he also wants to send a message to the subconscious of his followers: He and his party may have been in power for the last 10 years, but they still do not have real power and still need more power to rule the country as they wish. By bringing the abortion issue to the public’s attention, he is not only trying to dismiss criticism over his government’s long-term inaction on many problems but is also demanding more power, trying to convince people that if he became president, he could do more.

But Erdogan’s concern about abortion appears to go deeper than just political strategy. In the past, the PM has voiced his opinion that every Turkish family should have at least three children in order to avoid a population decline and to build a prosperous country. Erdogan has even given similar advice to audiences in the Balkans and Northern Cyprus and even to his Finnish counterpart. As the Associated Press reports, some observers see Erdogan’s new tack on abortion as reflecting his concern not only about Turkey’s overall birth rate but also about the disparity between birth rates in Turkey’s west and its predominantly Kurdish east:

Deniz Ulke Aribogan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, wrote in Aksam newspaper Friday that the government was seeking to use abortion to balance the Kurds’ high birth rate, since “ethnic reproduction is used by some organizations as a political tool” — an apparent reference to the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that is fighting for autonomy, and a pro-Kurdish political party also demanding the same.

“The problem is the rapid rise of population in eastern regions, while it has almost came to a standstill in western regions,” Aribogan wrote, adding that the decision had been taken for political reasons, rather than out of moral or religious concern.

The largely Kurdish southeast has the highest birth rate in Turkey with 27.3 births in every 1,000, compared to 11,4 births in the northwest, according to the latest available figures in 2010 by the Turkish Statistical Institute. More than 25 percent of Turkey’s nearly 75 million population is under the age of 14, according to a December survey.

Tino Sanandaji, a post-doctoral fellow at Chicago University who researches demographic change and its link to policy, said in an email Saturday that in the long run the higher Kurdish growth rate is certain to have social and political implications, although the process is “quite slow” for now.

“If it continues for four to five decades, however, the balance of power could start shifting, which is what seems to concern Turkish nationalists,” he said.

The AKP came to power by promoting itself as a liberal, modern and democratizing version of Turkey’s previous Islamist parties. Interestingly, Erdogan’s talk of abortion being part of an international plot to undermine Turkey comes straight out of the playbook of the AKP’s less enlightened predecessors. Ultimately, the new abortion debate in Turkey doesn’t only take the issues of women’s rights and of public health several steps back, but also finds the AKP moving backwards[1]

Let’s hear the background of the abortion debate from BBC[2]:

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described abortion as tantamount to “murder”, angering women’s rights groups and sparking an intense debate in the mainly Muslim nation.

In line with Mr. Erdogan’s comments, Turkey’s health minister proposed a change in the abortion law, which rights groups fear could lead to a total ban.

Abortions became legal in 1983. According to 2008 figures, 10% of pregnancies in Turkey were terminated through abortion, far lower than the European average rate of 30%.

Speaking last week at a conference on population and development, Mr. Erdogan said “there is no difference between killing a baby in its mother’s stomach and killing a baby after birth”.

Mr. Erdogan also said he was “a prime minister that is against birth by caesarean” because “unnecessary” elective caesareans were “unnatural”.

Mr. Erdogan, who is known to advocate having large families, caused yet more anger when he compared abortion to the aerial bombardment of civilians.

“Every abortion is like an Uludere,” he said – a reference to an incident last December in which 34 civilians were killed by the Turkish military in an air strike near the Iraqi border.

An investigation into the incident is still going on, with claims that the civilians were mistaken for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) armed insurgents.

‘Our womb’

Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Erdogan received the backing the Turkish parliament’s human rights committee chairman Ayhan Sefer Ustun.

Mr. Ustun, who belongs to the ruling Islamist-rooted AKP (Justice and Development Party) of Mr. Erdogan, said abortion should be banned as it constitutes “a crime against humanity”.

“The notion that life begins after a few months is a grand delusion. We now need to rid society of this misconception… It also poses a danger to the mother’s life.”

But that was not the reaction from feminists and women’s rights groups.

Habibe Yilmaz, lawyer and director of the Centre for Legal Support for Women, said “making a decision regarding one’s own body… is a fundamental human right”.

“Depriving women of this right would be tantamount to restricting her right to health and the right to live a fulfilling life.”

The Istanbul Feminist Collective reacted angrily. It staged a sit-in outside the prime minister’s office in Istanbul. Women held banners declaring “Murder is male violence, abortion is a choice!” and “Our womb, our life, our decision!”

Illegal practices

Next in line to reject Mr. Erdogan’s comments was Turkey’s medical fraternity. The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) warned that restricting abortion would only encourage illegal practices, push women to use “primitive methods” to abort and increase maternal mortality.

“Prime Minister Erdogan’s worries that the population will decrease and the nation will be wiped off the face of the Earth are baseless. Turkey’s population will reach 90 million in 2050 without any additional arrangements,” said TTB Secretary-General Feride Tanik.

The prime minister also faces international criticism. US-based Human Rights Watch has warned that restrictions on abortion would threaten “women’s human rights to life, health, equality, privacy, physical integrity, and freedom of religion and conscience”.

Change in law?

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Health Minister Recep Akdag has said a draft law will be submitted next month that would restrict or ban abortions.

“I believe the law should prevent abortions as much as possible, except in cases when they are medically necessary. When making a decision, politicians will take into account both the scientific and moral aspects of the issue,” he said.

In a reference to babies born as a result of rape, Mr. Akdag said that the state would look after the babies if “the mother has been through something bad”.

It is not clear what the draft bill would entail, but rights groups fear either a total ban or limiting abortions to four weeks after pregnancy. Current Turkish law allows abortions until the 10th week after conception.

New restrictions on abortion would not necessarily hurt Turkey’s bid for EU membership, as some EU member states either ban abortion or set very strict conditions for it.

Council of Europe criticizes the proposed ban on abortion

At its meeting in Paris on 4 June 2012, the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination expressed deep concern at the announcement made by the Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag that legislation outlawing abortion in all circumstances would be presented by the end of June. Such an announcement has been accompanied by statements by high government officials, including the Turkish Prime Minister, equaling abortion to murder and identifying abortion and “elected caesareans” as the causes for the slow population growth in the country.

Abortion ban unacceptable, Council of Europe warns

ANKARA – Hürriyet Daily News

The Council of Europe’s Equality and Non-Discrimination Committee announces its concerns on Turkish government’s abortion ban initiative. “A ban on abortions does not result in fewer abortions but only leads to clandestine abortions,” the committee says

A group of women gathered in front of the Health Ministry yesterday, calling for Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan to stop the abortion ban legislation. A major crowd also protested the ban in Istanbul on June 3. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

A group of women gathered in front of the Health Ministry yesterday, calling for Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan to stop the abortion ban legislation. A major crowd also protested the ban in Istanbul on June 3. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ


A group of women gathered in front of the Health Ministry yesterday, calling for Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan to stop the abortion ban legislation. A major crowd also protested the ban in Istanbul on June 3. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

Turkey’s government must do everything to ensure there is no rollback on women’s rights in terms of abortion restrictions, the Council of Europe’s Equality and Non-Discrimination Committee has said.

“Welcoming the fact that Turkey has been the first country to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the committee urged the Turkish authorities not to allow any setback on women’s rights, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health,” the committee said in a declaration June 4.

The committee, which issued its declaration following an initiative by Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Gülsün Bilgehan at its Paris meeting June 4, expressed its deep concern at Health Minister Recep Akdağ’s remarks, in which he said legislation outlawing abortion in all circumstances would be presented by the end of June.

Referring to an assembly resolution from 2008 on the access to safe and legal abortion in Europe, the declaration said: “A ban on abortions does not result in fewer abortions but only leads to clandestine abortions, therefore putting at risk the lives of the women’s concerned.”

The 2008 resolution also affirmed the right of all human beings – particularly women – to exercise freedom to control their own bodies, the declaration said. “The ultimate decision whether or not to have an abortion should be a matter for the woman concerned, who should have the means of exercising this right in an effective way.”

Meanwhile Turkey’s famous novelist Elif Şafak has said she is following the abortion discussion with concern and is worried that abortion will soon be banned.

“No women would have an abortion for no reason. It is not an issue women consider lightly or something they want to do. If a woman chooses to have abortion there is a reason. Leaving woman without any solution means leaving them under extreme difficulties,” Şafak said, adding that those who would be affected by a ban the most were women in economic difficulties.

US NGO head criticizes abortion

NEW YORK – Hürriyet Daily News Ankara’s anti-abortion initiative has been excoriated by the head of the International Women’s Health Coalition, who noted in a recent New York Times article that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should broach the issue when visits Turkey tomorrow.

“Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs a history lesson. We know from Chile and Romania, among others, that severely restricting abortion access does not increase births. It kills women, the very women Mr. Erdoğan says should have three children,” Adrienne Germain wrote in the letter. 

“His call for restrictive legislation also fuels abortion opponents across the Islamic world, jeopardizing the health and lives of millions more women,” she said. 

“Fortunately, a robust women’s health and rights movement in Turkey is pushing back. It deserves support from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she visits on Thursday,” she added.

CHP defends women’s right to choose

Turkish Prime Minister’s recent comments condemning abortion and caesarian birth spark debate among those who say abortion is a right within the boundaries of law and those who support Erdoğan’s words.

A group of women gather outside of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s office in İstanbul, protesting his comments on abortion. ‘The decision is up to us,’ wrote on one of the banners carried by women.

The Turkish prime minister’s remarks against abortion and caesarean births over the weekend have provoked a divisive debate, with Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Şahin (the only women minister in the Cabinet) emerging to offer her vigorous support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday.

“It is out of question for us to tamper with this right [to life] as the [governing] political will,” Şahin said, calling or the use of family planning methods to render it unnecessary to resort to abortion. “Caesarean [birth] is a surgical operation even if it [seems] painless. It bears risks in terms of the mother’s health,” she added.

Erdoğan said May 25 that he considered abortion to be “murder” while also speaking out against Caesarean births. In Turkey, abortion is legal during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Certain opposition figures and other nongovernmental organizations have excoriated the prime minister for his comments.

“I am deeply disappointed by the prime minister’s comments… 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. The totalitarian regime has brought Turkey to the point of intervening in people’s private lives,” said Aylin Nazlıaka, an Ankara deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Uludere comparison

Erdoğan also compared abortion to last year’s botched air raid that claimed 34 lives in Uludere in southeastern Turkey.

“I am a prime minister who opposes Caesarean births, and I know all this is being done on purpose. I know these are steps taken to prevent this country’s population from growing further. I see abortion as murder, and I call upon those circles and members of the media who oppose my comments: You live and breathe Uludere. I say every abortion is an Uludere,” Erdoğan said.

Turkey needs a young and dynamic population that constitutes the basis of its economy, he said, adding that they were going to strive to increase the country’s population.

“Insofar as human rights are concerned, abortion constitutes a right within the boundaries of law, as it is a situation that concerns women. It has been scientifically examined, and the question of when [the fetus] constitutes a living being is a scientific matter. Giving birth to a child a woman cannot look after is far more harmful both psychologically and economically,” said lawyer Hale Akgün, from Istanbul Bar Association[4].

About CHP EU Representation

The CHP was founded on 9 September 1923, about one and half month before the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey. The first President of modern Turkey’s oldest party was M. Kemal Atatürk. Today CHP is a social-democratic party, member of the Socialist International and associate member of the Socialist Group at the European Parliament. The scope of the CHP bureau in Brussels is not limited to the bilateral framework of Turkey's EU accession process. Issues such as the information society, energy policies, social development, climate change, international trade and security are among the different focus areas. The EU-Turkey relations are about integration and need multiple, plural and horizontal channels of communication. The CHP supports and promotes Turkey's EU membership process also by being more present and active in Brussels The CHP's Representative to the EU is Ms Kader Sevinç who previously worked as an MEP advisor at the European Parliament and in the private sector.
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