Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needed a new controversy to distract popular attention from the Uludere fiasco and it appears he has been successful, at least in part. His confrontational ruling style, however, will have a long-term impact on society. The AK Party has often be praised for the stability it has brought to Turkey over the past decade, but under the veneer of political continuity, social fractures have been getting deeper in recent times as the government turned more authoritarian.
On the gender front, the government has improved the legislative framework first with the Civil Code of 2002, then with the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) introduced in 2005, which radically changed legal perceptions of women and more recently with the Law on the Protection of the Family, aimed at curbing domestic violence. But at the same time, a more conservative view of the role played by women in the society has gradually crept in.
Anyone has the right to oppose abortion, but the level of misogyny expressed by politicians defending a ban in recent days is disturbing. It demonstrates a lack of respect for women as individuals that does not bode well for the improvement of gender relations in this country.
Statements on the fate of women left pregnant after a rape were particularly shocking. Mere embryos, however they are conceived, suddenly seem to have more rights than the women themselves. Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek went as far as suggesting that women who get pregnant after a rape should kill themselves rather than hurt an “innocent” child. Rape victims, clearly, are not innocent in his eyes. His attitude only underlines why women in this unfortunate situation would choose a termination: They would forever be stigmatized by a society that sees all women as potentially guilty of violating the community’s honor, and so would their offspring.
It is worth remembering that even without human intervention, 15-20 percent of detected pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion in the first trimester. Some experts place this figure at up to 50 percent because many embryos are naturally terminated before their existence is even detected. At 10 weeks of gestation, the time limit currently imposed by Turkish law, the tiny embryo is only just turning into a fetus. It is a potential baby, but it isn’t one yet.
The male politicians who launch such ferocious verbal attacks against women talk with great emotion about the children and souls potentially lost. But we never hear them react so strongly to the steady flow of news about women killed by their partners, nor do they have much to say when teenage girls are raped by large groups of men, often involving notables from the community. In the latest such story to emerge, two policemen were among 17 people involved in the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old in Sakarya. The trauma suffered by the victims of such assaults never attracts as much political attention as unborn embryos have done in recent days.
What women demand is the right to choose and to have control over their bodies. It is not for the state to dictate how many children a woman should bear or in what circumstances. The prime minister’s statements suggest, however, that he views women primarily as instruments of his grand design to expand the Turkish population. He is clearly unaware of the daily hardship experienced by many of his female compatriots. Women who choose to terminate a pregnancy always do so as a last resort: Abortion is an invasive procedure that no one would turn to unnecessarily.
The head of the Religious Affairs Directorate has now weighed into the debate and expressed support for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s view that abortion is murder. But this is a fight Turkish women won’t give up easily and more tension can be expected in the coming weeks.
Abortion was not a hot topic of debate in Turkish society until Prime Minister Erdoğan chose to bring it onto the agenda. He may get the legislative change he wants, but he has also unnecessarily increased tension in the country and created yet another fault line in an increasingly polarized and divided Turkey.