As a rough debate is ongoing related to the issue of abortion, which has been legal in Turkey since 1983, acclaimed women’s rights activist and researcher Pınar İlkkaracan has said that restricting or banning abortions hurts poor women the most and governments have no right to interfere in a woman’s decision in that regard.
The abortion debate started abruptly two weeks ago when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called abortion “murder” and comparable it to an air strike by the Turkish military last December that killed 34 civilians in Uludere. Erdoğan delivered two fiery speeches in which he attacked abortion and caesarean births as “secret” plots designed to stall Turkey’s economic growth. Previously, the prime minister also told women to have at least three children.
Following Erdoğan’s remarks, Health Minister Recep Akdağ talked about plans to draft a bill that would ban or restrict women’s access to abortions.
However, Turkey Population and Health Research (TNSA) statistics show a decline in abortions in Turkey, to 11 percent in 2008 from 18 percent in 1993.
Answering our questions, İlkkaracan elaborated on the issue.
Could you tell us about the issue of abortion in Turkey? When did the abortion issue emerge in Turkey?
The issue of abortion never came up in the feminist movement in Turkey because abortion was already legalized in 1983. But we did take up the issue later demanding that (a) the legal period should be extended from 10 to 12 weeks, (b) the requirement, which leads to significant discrimination, that a married woman should have permission from her spouse before being able to have an abortion should be removed. Those were the two issues we took up. In our Turkish Penal Code (TCK) campaign in 2002, we literally rewrote the entire penal code on issues and articles related to women. It is very interesting that as we got the first draft prepared by the JDP [ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] -- which was very difficult because they refused to give us the first draft -- we saw that although they had made many changes in terms of freedom of expression and other things in the penal code, in terms of articles related to women, they had taken them verbatim from the old penal code. The only intersecting aspect between our demands and what they said was the extension of the legal abortion period to 12 weeks. However, [opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)deputy] Canan Arıtman basically on her own carried out a campaign that this should not be the case because it could lead to more abortions and that female fetuses would be aborted. Despite our campaign, the legal abortion period remained 10 weeks.
Why do you think the government in 1983 made abortions legal in Turkey?
Abortion, unfortunately, is a very political issue all over the world. It was a time when many countries removed abortion restrictions. Although the third feminist movement in Turkey took up women’s rights in the private sphere after the 1980s, the international women’s movement took up the right to abortion after 1968. So in the ‘70s in the US and Europe, the abortion issue was feverishly discussed and debated. There were many demonstrations by women to gain their rights to abortion. It started a trend around the world toward removing restrictions on abortion. I am sure this had an impact on Turkey’s feminist movement and the legality of abortion. Research shows that it was not possible to bring women’s issues to the agenda in the ‘70s because of the armed clashes between the left and right as well as pressure from the government and martial law. So it is a fact that the 1980 military intervention paved the way for the feminist movement to bring their issues to the public agenda. So this was an unintended consequence.
Is there currently a problem in Turkey of abortion being considered a type of family planning?
Erdoğan’s argument in that regard was shocking for me. It is a very clear deception of the public. There had been absolutely no discussion at all on family planning or abortion by itself. And I am sure there has been no case, for example, where religious associations visited Erdoğan and demanded a ban. This is very clear that this is the agenda of the JDP [AK Party] and now it is trying to shape public perception. The way I understand it is that Erdoğan stated his private opinions and now he is trying to make it into a public reality. No woman undertakes an abortion willingly. It is always very difficult and a very difficult psychological process. Women resort to abortion after psychological turmoil and only if they come to the conclusion that it is not possible for them to raise or nurture the child. This was why we wanted the abortion legal period to be extended to 12 weeks -- because it gives women more time to seriously consider their options. The best method to prevent abortions is not to ban it but to increase women’s access to contraceptives and family planning knowledge.
I haven’t seen any women’s rights advocates groups in Turkey saying that abortion can be used as a family planning method. Have you?
On the contrary, even the family planning associations keep advocating to increase women’s access to contraception and knowledge of family planning methods so they can choose for themselves the best option. On this issue, there have been already a lot of problems in Turkey. I conducted research in eastern and southeastern Anatolia at the end of the 90s, and I found that a large proportion of the women had no access to information about family planning, and even if they had, they had no access to contraception. In eastern and southeastern Turkey, the situation was even worse because of the ban on the Kurdish language. Although there has been a family planning policy, research shows that this issue has never been effectively handled in Turkey. It is very important for women to have access to information and contraceptives methods to decide for themselves. The issue has become even more problematic in the last 1.5 years. Because, under the context of health reform, most of the AÇSAPs, [“Aile Çocuk Sağlığı Program Merkezi” or “Health of Family and Child Program Centers”], the main centers providing information and access to contraceptives have been shut down. And the departments for family planning at the ministry of health have been shut down.
‘Erdoğan on Vatican’s side, in a way’
So how do women get their basic information and services now?
So now the only way women can get access to information on contraceptives is through a family physician but [a] many women do not have access to them; [b] many women, especially in rural areas, because of restrictions on mobility, cannot travel and must rely on male relatives; [c] information on family planning and contraceptives is not included in the family physician’s performance portfolio. They are not receiving any money to provide this information, so they are not motivated to do so.
Is Erdoğan’s statement on abortion about population control?
It is a mix of his religious and political beliefs and nationalist policies. Whenever there are conversations about women’s bodies or birth rates all over the world, there is always also a nationalist agenda.
Many leaders tried that, especially authoritarian ones around the world…
Yes, this is true. When authoritarian leaders think there should be population control, they enact opposite policies. For example, in China, every family is allowed to have one child, an incredible intervention into people’s lives. Or in some countries, leaders who want to increase the population implement policies like bans on abortions and family planning. Many Christian countries now oppose the Vatican’s politics. Since the 1980s, in the midst of the worldwide trend to remove restrictions on abortions, the Vatican has become the leader of anti-abortion campaigns and politics in the world. So Erdoğan is on the Vatican’s side, in a way.
You have some striking statistics in your research with regard to what methods Turkish women used to induce abortion.
Only half of the married women, 15-49 years of age were using contraceptive methods at the time of the research, 1998. The reasons for not using any contraceptive methods included: Having no knowledge, 15 percent, husband or family not allowing her to do so although she wants to use it, 12 percent, and lacking financial means, 6 percent. Almost one in 10 married women had tried to induce an abortion at least once in her life through methods such as, injections, jumping down from a high place, inserting soap into uterus, inserting knitting needles and carrying heavy objects. In addition, six out of 10 women who tried self-abortion indicated that their health was seriously damaged.
‘Gov’t has no right to intervene’
In political and legal terms, privacy can be understood as a condition in which one is not observed or disturbed by the government. What is the philosophy behind it?
Intervention of the state in people’s privacy started after the formation of nation-states. The European norm at the moment is that the state should respect the privacy of a person and has no right to intervene in a person’s private sphere. Every person has a right to have his or her opinion on ethical issues, on religion, religious interpretation, values etc. There are diverse views. That’s why government does not have a right to interfere in private spheres of a person’s life. That’s why I have been against a ban on the headscarf and I have done activism against the headscarf ban. No government has a right to tell a woman what to wear and not to wear. It’s a personal choice. This is also a class issue.
Would you elaborate on that?
Wherever abortion is illegal in the world, every woman is negatively affected, but poor women suffer most, and the same will happen in Turkey. Poor women are harmed most when abortions are banned. Women who have money always find a way to get abortions even though this might be in unsafe conditions. I recall a debate in Turkey back in 2003 when we were campaigning for changes in the Turkish Penal Code to improve women’s rights. Doğan Soyaslan, an adviser to Justice Minister Cemil Çiçek at the time had declared, during a parliamentary debate on changes, that nobody would want to marry a girl who is not virgin and that it was fine for a victim to marry her rapist, rather then face a lifetime of spinsterhood. Then, on a television debate, Soyaslan was asked by journalists what he would do if one of his daughters were raped. Very comfortably, he said that they would take care of it because they have money and education, and that he is making all that advice for poor women! His words caused so much reaction in Turkey, and the result was to the benefit of women’s rights; the government had to backtrack. For example, in Pakistan, if a woman is raped, and if she cannot find four witnesses to prove it, she is jailed because of adultery. Could there be witnesses found in a rape case? The only choice for the woman is to keep silent in that case. However, no rich woman was jailed for adultery in Pakistan; only poor women were!
‘Whole world is watching Turkey’
Turkish women’s rights groups have been campaigning against a possible ban or restrictions on abortions following Erdoğan’s and various government officials’ statements signaling restrictions on abortion in Turkey. Do you think their voices are heard by the government?
Unfortunately, I am very pessimistic about it. The whole world is watching Turkey in that regard. There will be campaigns and marches going on. Despite that, I am pessimistic because the government does not listen to women, and secondly, this is a personal trait of the prime minister, when he says something he makes it an issue of honor and no matter how much criticism he receives, he does not step back even if the issue harms him and his party.
What do you expect from the only female minister in the Cabinet, Fatma Şahin?
She supports Erdoğan’s position. It’s very disappointing. Some other female deputies also support Erdoğan in regards to the issue. But I am not accusing those female deputies in the [ruling] Justice and Development Party. We know from the experiences in the world that if there is not at least 30 percent female representation in the parliament, women cannot affect policies in regards to women’s rights. That’s why we are asking for quotas. If the percentage of female representation in the parliament is less than 30 percent, female deputies are adopting masculine attitudes.
‘Trend toward legalization of abortion’
What are the issues in terms of how a government may regulate abortion?
The legal period is an issue. It varies in various countries. It’s usually allowed from 12 to 26 weeks of pregnancy; Turkey is an exception since it is legal until 10 weeks. The 1994 United Nations Cairo Declaration and Plan of Action [ICPD] was a turning point for the whole world in terms of sexual and reproductive health and rights. From the Cairo Declaration on, the UN said that the main issue was not “population control,” but rather women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. The UN said that it is up to women to decide when, how many and how often a woman would like to have a child. This was a revolution in itself. It happened because of the actions of the international women’s movement. The declaration says that where abortion is legal, the duty of the state is to provide access to safe abortions and make sure that the conditions are safe for woman’s health. The declaration also says that even in countries where abortion is not legal, women have a right to post-abortion care because it is well-known fact that women resort to unhealthy methods when abortion is not legal, and will need medical care in the post-abortion period when life-threatening situations occur. The world trend in regards to abortion is toward legalization since the Cairo Declaration. Since then 26 countries either legalized abortion or removed restrictions. Only three or four countries have gone to the opposite direction.
What is the rate in regards to maternal deaths as a result of unsafe abortions?
According to the World Health Organization, complications resulting from unsafe abortions account for 13 percent of all maternal deaths. And reducing maternal deaths is one of the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals. Turkey is obliged to reduce maternal deaths; it’s successfully working on it. On the other hand, banning abortion rights would be a huge contradiction by the Turkish government which is trying to reduce maternal deaths.
‘When life begins depends on beliefs, choices’
When life begins is a much debated topic. Is there a universally accepted norm or consensus regarding when a fetus becomes a “person”?
No, this is a much debated issue. Ideas about when life begins changes from country to country, it also changes from one person to another. The decision about it is based on beliefs and even on politics. Anti-abortion campaigners, for example the Vatican, claim without any proof that life begins with conception. Even within a particular religion, there are differing views about the issue.
There are also those who say that it is not a women's rights issue.
It is definitely a women's rights issue! This is already accepted by the ICPD and some other international agreements.
And Turkey is a signatory to them.
Of course it is. There is no doubt in the world that this is a women's rights issue. Such arguments are a backlash against the internationally accepted human rights of women.
She is a member of the High Level Task Force of the United Nations Cairo Declaration and Plan of Action (ICPD+20) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs-15). She is also the founding president of Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) -- New Ways, which is a women’s NGO that has led various successful legal reforms in Turkey on gender equality, including the enactment of protection orders for women faced with violence as well as the reform of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) from a gender perspective. In 1996, she initiated a nationwide human rights education program to enable women to exercise their rights in Turkey, which is now implemented in more than 47 provinces. She also co-founded the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), an international network of 46 leading academic and nongovernmental organizations from 14 Muslim countries. She is the editor of “Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies” (translated into Arabic and Turkish), “Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East” and “The Myth of the Warm Home: Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse.” She received the prestigious Gru-ber Women’s Rights Prize of the Gru-ber Foundation in 2007 for her leadership in women’s rights at the global level.