ISTANBUL - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sparked a strong response from women's rights activists after calling for legislation to restrict women's access to the procedure. The future of abortion is now in question in Turkey.
Hundreds of women protesters demonstrated outside the Istanbul office of Prime Minister Erdogan. The protest followed his strong attack on abortion at a congress of his party in a football stadium in Istanbul Sunday.
He says no one should have the right to authorize abortion. It makes no difference whether you kill a baby when it is still in its mother's womb, or after it is born. We have to act together against this.
Abortion has been legal in Turkey for up to 10 weeks after conception, with emergency abortions allowed for medical reasons after that. Married women require their husband's permission unless the pregnancy poses an immediate danger to the life of the mother.
Mr. Erdogan proposed outlawing all abortions that are not medically necessary, and limiting medically necessary abortions to the first few weeks after conception.
He also called for limits on Caesarean births, saying they were "nothing more than a procedure to restrict and square a nation's population" because, he said, women who give birth that way generally cannot have more than one more child.
Pinar Ilkkaracan of Turkey's Women's for Women's Human Rights warns the right to an abortion is now under threat.
"They are talking about changing the laws so that it can been done up to four weeks and only when there is a medical problem," said Ilkkaracan. "But these four weeks is laughable. A lot of women will not understand they are pregnant in the first four weeks. We know very well it will go underground, then it cannot be monitored. If it's illegal, then it will be done under very unsafe conditions and many thousands of women will be dying from unsafe abortions every year."
The current abortion regulation was introduced in 1983 by Turkey's military rulers in response to the numbers of deaths by illegal abortions. From 2009 to 2011, the numbers of abortions have increased from 60,000 to 70,000.
In central Istanbul, there is concern among women over the prime minister's attack.
"...He must leave it to the women or medical people," said a woman. "It's not the prime minister's job. He just wants to change the society."
This woman, dressed in traditional religious clothing, is undecided.
"Yes, he is right," she said. "Abortion can in some cases be considered murder. But there are other cases when young women commit suicide because they cannot get an abortion."
Yasmin Congar, editor of the newspaper Taraf says the prime minister's stance on abortion is aimed at the Islamic grassroots supporters of his party. She worries about the overall consequences of his stance for the country.
"He is just using abortion as a political tool," said Congar. "He plans to get some votes out of that, because I think this is seen by him as a fault line between the pious Muslims and the more secular women in society. But I think he is creating new fault lines. He is creating a very, very dangerous ground and unhealthy practices. The number of abortions do not decrease in a country where it is forbidden. Only the numbers of deaths increase."
Women's rights groups and the main parliamentary opposition have promised to fight any attempts to reform the abortion law. But with the prime minister enjoying a large majority in parliament, any reform is expected to pass easily - although critics warn the controversy is likely to only further polarize a deeply divided society.