After public pressure forced him to back away from a head-on effort to drastically curtail abortion rights in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is resorting to back-door methods to get his way, women’s rights activists assert.
Turkey’s Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) stood at the forefront of a massive public campaign against the prime minister when, in 2012, he declared abortion to be murder and pledged to curtail its use. Abortion for medical or economic reasons was legalized in Turkey in 1983 for single women, while married women require their husband’s consent.
Although Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds a clear majority of seats in parliament, the politically savvy prime minister quickly detected that he was swimming against the tide of Turkish public opinion and stepped back from pursuing a ban.
But the WWHR, which has been closely monitoring access to abortion since the 2012 controversy broke out, now claims systematic efforts are being employed to curtail its use, and that the reports of such episodes are becoming increasingly frequent. “We know that all of Turkey’s clinics or hospitals which feel politically close to the prime minister are refusing abortions,” said the WWHR’s co-founder and president, Pınar Illkaracan.
While doctors, in the past, often performed abortions when women were beyond the legal time limit of 10 weeks into pregnancy, they rarely do so now. “Now we are hearing that doctors in private practice are being criminalized,” claimed Illkaracan, “Of course, both the doctor and the woman asking for the abortion are being criminalized.”
Despite repeated attempts by EurasiaNet.org, neither the Ministry of Health nor the Ministry of Justice responded to requests for comment.
While the government has stated that the legal time period for an abortion will remain at 10 weeks (for rape victims and those with life-threatening medical conditions, the limit is 20 weeks), one activist collective, Kürtaj Haktır, Karar Kadınların (“Abortion Is a Right, The Choice Belongs to Women”) asserts that procedural obstacles are effectively reducing that time-frame to eight weeks.
At a January news conference in Istanbul, the group, which is running a write-in campaign about problems with access to a legal abortion, also cited a host of examples of women facing abuse and interrogation by hostile doctors. One woman, who had an abortion at a state clinic in Istanbul, wrote recently to the prominent Hürriyet Newspaper columnist Ayse Arman about her own experience.
“I learned, to my horror, that they would not give any anesthetics, tranquilizers, or pain killers – nothing at all – while performing an abortion,” the woman recounted. “ I will never forget the physical and emotional trauma I experienced at that moment.”
The graphic nature of Arman’s column caused more than a stir, adding fuel to the debate, with allegations that such brutal treatment is part of a state policy of discouraging abortions. Some activists even contend that such measures could amount to a ban in fact, if not in law.
The government has drafted legislation to reform the abortion law, but still has not revealed the wording of the proposed amendments – a lack of information that only contributes to a growing sense of anxiety among many Turkish women.
“We believe they will target private hospitals where women have more freedom to have access to an abortion,” commented Abortion Is a Right activist Ayse Duzkan. “There could even be almost a ban on abortions in state hospitals. There will be extra limitations for unmarried women, as this will be an attempt to stop unmarried sex, to which they [AKP leaders] are opposed.”
There are also fears that the law could revisit last year’s proposal that any woman wanting an abortion be required to listen to the heartbeat of the fetus. A letter written to the campaign website “Abortion Is a Choice” gives an account of a doctor in a private clinic in Istanbul “without warning” compelling a female patient to “listen to what he called the ‘baby’s heartbeat.’”
Against that backdrop, Turkish women’s rights groups say they are now preparing for a prolonged struggle. “Women need the right to a free, healthy abortion. I think we are going to see many demonstrations and protests,” predicted activist Duzkan.
Activists also say that any government attempt to restrict abortion will simply drive abortion underground, raising the risk of more deaths from self-induced abortions. "Women will never let go of their abortion right -- one way or another,” declared Filiz Ayla, a medical doctor who spoke at the Abortion Is a Right news conference.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.