Across the Atlantic from the abortion debates in Arizona, Virginia, Philadelphia, and most recently, Michigan, a very similar discussion can be found in Turkey. A few weeks ago, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that he considered abortion to be murder. The statement was strongly endorsed by the head of the Parliament’s Human Rights Commission and the Family and Social Policies Minister – both women.
However, unlike their fellow conservatives stateside, this debate is ostensibly not just based on pro-life or religious reasons. According to Erdoğan, keeping abortion legal is “a sly plan to wipe this nation off the global stage.” Such statements are not all that surprising, given that last year Erdoğan expressed concern about a declining Turkish population. He went on to urge Turkish families to have at least three kids, claiming that those who did would receive a ‘prize’.
Though a majority of Turkish citizens are in opposition to a draft bill which would make abortion illegal (abortion is currently legal in Turkey during the first 10 weeks of the pregnancy), the nature of the debate highlights two rather disturbing trends. First, it points to the over-extension of the state into highly private matters. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has tried to adopt similar extensions into people’s private lives in the past – in 2004, they tried to criminalize adultery, but the proposal was dropped in the face of criticism both from within Turkey and from Europe.
Secondly, and more alarmingly, it showcases a nationalistic fear – of being wiped off the map and of diluting ‘Turkish-ness’. Such an understanding also naturally lends itself to giving no room for the assimilation of minorities or immigrants. In fact, some analysts have argued this decision may have political rather than religious motives behind it as it aims to counter the high birth rates among the Kurdish population of the country. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, in Southeast Anatolia and Central Anatolia, where a majority of the Kurdish population in Turkey resides, the birth rate is 27.3 per 1000 people and 22.9 per 1000 people respectively. This is much higher than the rest of the regions where most of the population is ethnically Turkish, and birth rates are below 19 per 1,000 people, with as low as 11 per 1,000 in some parts of the country (numbers reflect data from August 2011).
A counter-argument might be that the higher birthrates among the Kurds are just caused by a lack of basic services – such as education, provision of health service and birth control, and should therefore, not be linked to some sort of conspiracy by the Kurds to outnumber the Turks. Some have even claimed that the debate over abortion was started by the Prime Minister just to divert the public’s attention from the Uludere incident – where 34 civilians near the Iraqi border were killed in a strike by the Turkish military. However, some analysts have commented that organizations can use ‘ethnic reproduction’ as political tools to reach their goals. Indeed, after looking at Erdoğan’s past statements and his concern about a declining Turkish population, one cannot say with so much certainty that the debate on abortion was initiated just to divert the public’s attention.
While controversial policies geared toward ethnic minorities are nothing new for Turkey, using social policy in this manner is. Moreover, Turkish women’s groups now have to focus on getting the state to offer better alternatives to rape victims, and those women, who out of fear of giving birth to another female child in a highly patriarchal society, will take recourse to illegal and more dangerous options to terminate their girl child. In the longer term however, one must cautiously watch the nature of AKP’s policies, and how they might have troubling consequences for the mindset of Turkish society.