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,” Erodgan 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.