In this column I do not want to go into the motives behind this extraordinary emotional and blunt outburst, although I tend to agree with observers like Yavuz Baydar who consider the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader’s remarks on abortion as part of a wider shift away from “democratic conservatism” towards a poisonous “nationalist conservatism.” I also do not want to spend too many words on the Uludere comparison, which I find extremely offensive and insensitive.
I want to focus on Erdoğan’s effort to make abortion a controversial issue in Turkey. Nobody should be surprised that the leader of a conservative party criticizes abortion. In many countries, including those with a liberal law on abortion, conservative or Christian Democrat parties have always tried to water down or block legislation that would give women the power to decide. Most of the time, these attempts focus on reducing the time limit or on introducing mechanisms that force women to reconsider their choice. In countries like Ireland, Portugal, Malta and Poland abortion is illegal or only permitted in exceptional cases. Even in the Netherlands, considered to be one of the most liberal countries on this issue, laws to regulate abortion have without exception been controversial, and anti-abortion politicians have often succeeded in amending relevant regulations. One example comes from the Netherlands, where abortion performed by a certified clinic or hospital is allowed at any point between conception and viability. Every woman who wants to have an abortion is obliged to think again for five days. This waiting period was a clear conservative demand intended to prevent rash decisions and allow alternative options to be taken into account. Other countries have introduced similar obstacles that limit the full and immediate power of women to decide.
Whether one agrees with these restrictions or not, they were the result of long and often heated discussions in which all arguments were presented and pro-life and pro-choice supporters had a chance to convince those looking for a balanced approach on such a sensitive topic. One can forget about such a sensible and level-headed debate in Turkey after the prime minister basically accused those who do not agree with him of being murderers. It is the best way to eliminate any discussion before it has even started.
Erdoğan’s rude words also showed his lack of interest in the research done into the effects of different abortion policies. A recent publication, for instance, showed that while abortion in the Netherlands is legal, safe, available and free, it is also extremely rare compared to other countries. According to the authors, the explanation for the low abortion rate is the legal sale of contraceptives and the availability of affordable contraceptive pills. They conclude, “When contraceptives are legal, women are less likely to experience a pregnancy and less likely to experience their pregnancy as unintended.”
Other reports make it clear why the words of the prime minister were not only harmful but also irresponsible. Research by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that almost half of all abortions worldwide take place in unsafe conditions and that one in eight women who undergoes an unsafe abortion dies. By declaring abortion almost totally illegal, the government is pushing thousands of girls and women into backstreet abortions. Rich women will have the option to go abroad and have a safe abortion. Poor women won’t have that choice and will again start jumping from stairs or resorting to knitting needles. The leader of a civilized nation should think twice before he knowingly promotes such lethal policies.
The tragedy of Erdoğan’s remarks on abortion, Cesarean births and the need for Turkish women to have at least three children is that he is trying to fight the consequences of his own successful economic policies. As in all other countries, families in Turkey who are better off tend to have fewer children. Women who are better educated want to decide for themselves how many children they will have. Trying to stop these trends is picking a fight that will cause serious harm but one which the AKP leader in the end is never going to win. His harsh remarks may be good for political profiling, but they are not going to change inevitable realities in the new Turkey he himself has created.