PM's abortion remark sparks row over ethics

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Photo: AA)

May 27, 2012, Sunday/ 18:07:00

A statement from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressing his anti-abortion stance and opposition to C-section surgery has sparked the anger of women's rights groups and some female deputies, initiating a debate on the government's right to intervene in people's ethical choices.

Addressing a conference in İstanbul on Friday, Erdoğan said no one should have the right to sanction abortion. “Either you kill a baby in the mother's stomach or you kill a baby after birth. There is no difference,” Erdoğan said. He also expressed his opposition to C-section surgery, describing it as unnatural. Health Minister Recep Akdağ on Saturday confirmed plans to limit the number of C-section births at Turkish hospitals.

“We will impose penalties on private hospitals that have greatly increased the number of unnecessary Cesareans,” he said, speaking at a health symposium in Balıkesir on Saturday. He noted the ministry was working on new legislation to address the issue.

In his speech Erdoğan further remarked that society should be more sensitive to the issue of abortion and that “we have to be together against this,” adding that, “Every abortion is like an Uludere,” a reference to the deaths of 34 civilians in December last year in a Turkish military airstrike near the Iraqi border in the Kurdish-dominated Southeast. An investigation into the killings is ongoing, but it is claimed the civilians were mistaken for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists by the military.

Sharing her thoughts about Erdoğan’s comments, Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Şahin has suggested that Erdoğan’s statements should be discussed on scientific grounds. “Abortion is, of course, a right of individuals. But what the prime minister said was his personal observation. He pointed out the significance of family planning and taking necessary precautions before thinking of abortion as a solution. ... The prime minister’s statement that ‘abortion is a murder’ is merely to emphasize that when you terminate a pregnancy, if you did not take precautions beforehand, you are violating that baby’s right to life. To those criticizing the prime minister’s statements on this issue I recommend reading World Health Organization (WHO) reports,” the minister said.

Şahin further noted that about 20 percent of pregnant women undergo Cesarean section surgery in European countries, while in Turkey every one of two women prefers Cesarean surgery. Şahin explained the reason behind this preference: “There is a misconception among women. They think you pay more but suffer less with the Cesareans surgeries. This perception is quite far from the truth.”

Women’s rights groups and advocates reacted angrily to the statement. Habibe Yılmaz, lawyer and head of the Center for Legal Support to Women, said in a statement made to a news agency, “Making a decision regarding one’s own body -- in the realm of medicine -- 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 issue of voluntary miscarriages should be seen in the light of fundamental liberties.”

Activist Neslihan Akbulut Arıkan, secretary-general of the Women’s Rights Association Against Discrimination, said her association was opposed to abortion as a birth control method for irresponsible sexual behavior. However, she noted, “Politicians should avoid making sharp statements on sensitive issues so as to avoid putting the blame on people who might resort to this method out of dire necessity.”

Medical personnel have been more cautious in their comments. İsmail Mete Etil, head of the Turkish Gynecology and Obstetrics Association, said: “The highest rates of abortion are recorded in countries of Asia and Latin America where abortion is illegal. The rate is much lower in countries where abortion is legal. Since 1983 it has been legal for women to have abortions until the 10th week of pregnancy in Turkey. For women who are further into their pregnancy there may be a risk to the mother’s life.”

Lauding Turkey’s achievements in gender equality and women’s empowerment, Erdoğan said Turkey is party to many international conventions regarding women’s rights. He said there are 145 family consulting centers across Turkey serving nearly 85,000 people. He added that more than 31,000 women benefit from guesthouses, and that while 28 infants died in every 100,000 births in 2005 the figure was down to 16 per 100,000 in 2010.

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