Following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent statements against abortion and the use of Caesarian sections, Gül Aldıkaçtı Marshall examines the politics of reproduction in the country. She argues that his statements reflect a desire to encourage population growth for economic reasons, but that many of the same aims could be met by increasing the participation of women in the labour market. If Turkey continues down this path it may also have implications for the country’s relationship with the EU.

“I am against births by Caesarian. I see abortion as murder. No one should have the right to permit abortion. There is no difference between killing a child in a mother’s womb or killing a child after birth.”

These were the words of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current prime minister of Turkey, during his closing speech on May 25 at an international conference in Istanbul. This was not the first time the prime minister uttered words publicly on reproduction. Previously, on several occasions, he had encouraged married couples to have at least three children. This time, though, he revealed his reproductive agenda further by tying his view on the number of children with both abortion and C-section: “I love children. I want every family to have at least three children in my country because we need a young dynamic population.” Soon after this meeting, at a different occasion, Mr. Erdoğan stated that C-sections prevent women from having more than two children, and he blamed doctors for resorting to this procedure to make more money and save time. According to Mr. Erdoğan, C-sections, along with abortion, are methods to curb the development of the country.

Erdoğan’s remarks received a strong opposition from women and men in various parts of the country. There were protests in big cities with slogans, such as “Tayyip, get your hands off my body,” and “Abortion is my choice; murder is man’s method.” There was also opposition from several universities which reminded the public and the government that banning abortion would be against international treaties (e.g. the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) to which Turkey is a signatory, and that outlawing abortion only leads to illegal abortion that often jeopardises women’s lives, especially the lives of poor women.

In June, remarkably soon after the prime minister made those controversial statements, the Ministry of Health commissioned a group of experts to look into the issue of abortion and C-section. The result was a recent government decision to keep the time-frame for abortion to ten weeks, but restrict C-sections to only in cases of necessity, taking away the choice option. C-sections will be allowed only in state hospitals.

Indeed some see the recent developments on abortion (and C-section method of birth) as a sign of ideological differences between the religious-oriented conservative government headed by Erdoğan and secular oppositional groups. However, a closer look at the issue would reveal that at the expense of women’s power to determine their own rights, abortion has always been connected by the state elite (Islamist or secular) to population management during the history of the modern Turkish Republic. In this sense, Mr. Erdoğan’s approach to the issue is not any different than his predecessors. In the early years of the Turkish Republic, which was established in 1923, the secular-oriented state elite decided to ban abortion to increase the population which had diminished considerably as a result of World War I and the Independence War. Population growth was also seen to be useful for agriculture, which was the chief economic sector. Thus, the Penal Code prohibited abortion, punishing both the woman who goes through abortion and the one who aids it. Yet, there was a reduction in punishment for those who relied on abortion to protect personal honour or the honour of their relatives. In 1965, the law was amended to allow abortion when the mother’s life was in danger. Growing population concerns of the state elite led to another change in the Penal Code in 1983. Abortion during the first ten weeks of pregnancy became legal; after this point, it was legal only when the mother’s life was in danger. The husband’s permission for married women or the guardian’s consent for a minor was required. The ten-week statute remained during changes to the Penal Code in the early 2000s. Attempts by feminist women’s groups to increase the legal abortion time frame to twelve-weeks were not successful during this period, but feminist groups continued to pressure the state to amend the article on abortion. They were disappointed to hear Erdoğan’s recent words which signify a serious step back from what they considered a woman’s right.

Image Credit: Ian Usher (Creative Commons BY NC SA)

At present, Turkey has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It had the highest increase in GDP in Europe in 2010. The young population is the main force behind this development. However, despite having the youngest population and one of the highest fertility rates in Europe, its aging population is also expected to rise. Mr. Erdoğan appears to see increasing the birth rate and banning abortion and C-section as methods to maintain the young population. Nonetheless, his government seems to be ignoring that a growing population brings growing demand for jobs and affordable education and housing. Disregarding ways to improve the current workforce is also a problem; this is especially the case with women’s labour which continues to be underutilised. Women’s current labour market participation is about 28 percent. Marriage, birth, and lack of affordable childcare keep many women in urban areas out of the formal labour market. In rural areas, women’s labour continues to be unpaid “family labour.” Despite heavy criticisms from the EU, the current government has not made a genuine effort to increase women’s formal labour market participation.

The historical emphasis on regulating abortion one way or another for population management is now at a point of influencing the Turkish state’s relationship with the EU. Even though the EU has not made a direct threat to block Turkey’s membership if the Turkish government bans abortion, it has emphasised “harmonising” the EU and Turkey. At the moment, there is no specific legislation of the EU on abortion, but the ban on abortion violates the European Convention on Human Rights and would negatively affect Turkey’s accession to the EU.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Gül Aldıkaçtı MarshallUniversity of Louisville
Dr Gül Aldıkaçtı Marshall is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at University of Louisville.  Her research interests are in the areas of gender, politics, social movements, and mass media.  She has written numerous articles on women’s movements and women’s rights in Turkey.  Her current line of research highlights the significance of transnational feminist activism in influencing gender policies both at national and supranational levels.  She is the author of a forthcoming book on the ways in which the grass-roots women’s organizations as well as the Turkish state and the EU are engaged in shaping gender policies in Turkey.

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