The Guardian, UK
1 February 2013
Constanze Letsch in Istanbul
Draft bill prompts fears that new legislation will ‘dramatically limit availability’ to poorer women and those in rural areas
A new law expected to be presented to the Turkish cabinet in the next few days will make it impossible for women in the country to gain access to legal abortions, health professionals and human rights activists have warned.
The government has promised that the new draft bill on reproductive health and child abuse will not touch the legal limit for terminations, which is currently 10 weeks. But while an outright ban seems unlikely, women’s rights activists say the legislation will make abortions impossible in all but a few cases.
Under the draft law, abortions will only be permitted if carried out by obstetricians in hospitals, according to reports in the Turkish media. Currently the procedure is also offered by certified practitioners and local health clinics. The new law also introduces the right for doctors to refuse performing an abortion on the grounds of their conscience, and a mandatory “consideration time” for women requesting a termination.
“This will dramatically limit availability, especially to women in rural areas and women with few economic resources,” said Selin Dagistanli of the campaign group Abortion Is a Right.
“While there is no legal ban, these measures will make abortion de facto unavailable. In many towns there might only be one hospital, and maybe one obstetrician. What if this one doctor then refuses to perform a termination? Many women cannot afford to travel to another city or go to a private hospital,” she said.
Deniz Bayram, a lawyer at the Purple Roof women’s shelter in Istanbul, said: “The name of the draft bill puts child abuse and abortion on one level. It criminalises a medical procedure that needs to be available to women.”
Abortion in Turkey was legalised in 1983 to reduce the high number of women dying from unsafe, self-induced terminations. According to the Turkish Doctors Union Women’s Health Branch, only 2% of pregnancy-related deaths are the result of unsafe abortion methods today, while the number stood at 50% in the 1950s.
“If this new law passes, we will go back to the dark days of backstreet abortions. Women will start dying again,” said Dagistanli.
The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has repeatedly described abortions as “murder”. Last year, the then health minister Recep Akdağtriggered a wave of protests when he threatened to prohibit terminations.
Erdoğan has urged Turkish couples to have at least three children and even campaigned for population growth in other countries. “Ever since the government started to focus on population growth and pro-natalist policies in 2007, obstacles have increased for women wanting an abortion,” said Dagistanli.
The draft bill is expected to be presented to the cabinet soon and will then be voted on in parliament. Since the ruling AKP holds the majority of seats, the law is expected to pass once it is put up for voting. Women’s groups fear that it might be passed overnight to avoid protests.
Even before the draft has been published, anti-abortion rhetoric from Erdoğan and other government figures has already made it harder for women to obtain terminations, said Bayram. She added that her organisation was receiving an increasing number of phone calls from women who were turned away from hospitals. “Women call us and ask: ‘We were told [in the hospital] that abortion is illegal in Turkey. Is that true?’ These women then often don’t know where to go. We realised that even without a legal abortion ban, it is already largely unavailable in Turkey,” she said.
Women are routinely turned away after eight weeks of gestation, when surgery becomes necessary, Bayram said. “We also hear of cases where women are verbally humiliated for wanting an abortion. The psychological pressure on women has increased dramatically.”
A full draft of the new law has yet to be published and the Turkish health ministry refused to comment.
One doctor at the Turkish Doctors Union Women’s Health Branch, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “This new bill is being drafted behind closed doors, without consulting specialists or women’s rights groups. Health professionals are worried about what it might bring.
“The government’s stance is very clear. They do not want to improve the safety of terminations. Abortions are among the safest medical procedures, but it looks like we might lose the right to it now.”