Access to Abortion in Turkey: No Laughing Matter

Abortion has been legal in Turkey since 1983, but many women wouldn’t know it was. Access these days is very limited; a local women’s group reports that only three out of the 37 public hospitals in the country are providing non-emergency terminations.

Turkey had been a beacon in a region where clandestine, and often unsafe, abortions are the norm. In 1983,Turkey joined Tunisia in permitting abortion under all circumstances in the first trimester. They are the only countries in the Middle East/North Africa with this policy; in the rest of the region, abortion is only legal to save a woman’s life or protect her health. While Turkey’s law is far from perfect—married women require the permission of their spouses—it was an important progressive development.

Before abortion was legalized in Turkey, unsafe abortion was one of the leading causes of maternal mortality. And maternal mortality was significantly higher than it is now; in 1974, there were 208 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births, and in 2013, this was reduced to 20 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births.

Yet, this progress is in jeopardy. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated several times that abortion “is murder.” This is the same man who has made other extreme and ridiculous statements, including that caesarean sections are part of a secret plot to stifle the country’s growth and that all women should have at least three children. Such questionable remarks are not restricted to Erdoğan. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has said that women should not laugh in public.

Sentiments like these are impinging on women’s reproductive rights. In 2012, a law was proposed that would permit doctors to refuse to perform an abortion on the grounds of conscientious objection and would impose mandatory waiting periods for women requesting terminations. Although this law did not pass, President Erdoğan’s recent rhetoric, and the comments and actions of other government officials, seem to have had almost as dangerous an impact on women’s health.

Health professionals in the public system are taking cues from their leaders, defying the law, and making it very hard for women to obtain these services. Some hospitals have introduced a policy of sending messages to fathers informing them of their daughters’ pregnancies. Some refuse to provide abortion services if the woman is not married or more than 6 weeks pregnant; even though the law actually permits abortion until the 10th week of pregnancy.

Such backward steps are disconcerting, to say the least. With more and more barriers to access, women will be forced to resort to unsafe methods to terminate pregnancies, undoing the country’s progress in reducing maternal deaths. If President Erdoğan really wants to do right by his country and put it on the path to progress, he should be protecting and promoting women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Image: Steve Evans/Flickr

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