Couples in Turkey unable to conceive naturally face possible jail if they go abroad for artificial insemination treatment. That's according to a new regulation introduced by the country's ministry of health. Artificial insemination has been banned in Turkey for several years, but now the government appears to determined to end the practice altogether.
Artificial insemination is usually not controversial in many other countries. But in Turkey, it's a different story. A new measure makes it a crime for a Turkish woman to get pregnant with sperm from a foreign donor, punishable by one to three years in jail.
The regulation has caused shock both for couples unable to conceive naturally and the doctors who treat them.
Dr. Bulent Urman is the head of Turkey reproductive health and infertility society.
"To be honest this absurd legislation. You cannot find anything like it around the world," he said. "We are not allow to offer our patients a legitimate and a medically accepted treatment even if the patient wants to have this treatment where it is legal. And if the doctors direct their patients to centers outside of the country, if they catch you doing this, let's say in the American Hospital IVF center, the center will be closed indefinitely and our licenses as practicing physicians will be suspended. That's what they say."
Officials say the measure is based on a law that forbids concealing a child's paternity. Protecting the racial purity of the nation is also another reason given by health officials defending the policy.
But women's rights groups are outraged. Pinar Ilkkaracan is the head of Women for Women's Human Rights.
"No government has the right to order women on when or how they get children," said Ilkkaracan. "Artificial insemination allows women to have children, not only married women but also women out of wedlock. And in that case its very important technology. It also shows this is a trend with the government that they are targeting the control of a women's body and sexuality."
Observers say the ruling Islamic rooted Justice and Development Party, is no stranger to such controversies. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to criminalize adultery, only backing down after intense pressure both at home and from the European Union.
Last year he again outraged women's rights groups when called on all married women to have at least three children.
But conservative circles in Turkey argue, that while the country is a secular state, the overwhelmingly Muslim population is largely religiously sensitive. Professor of theology at Ankara University, Seim Yeprem says there are alternatives to artificial insemination that are more acceptable.
"The main criteria is the protection of the unity of family," he says. "If we approach the subject through the Islamic faith, adoption is the solution for these families who cannot conceive. As you all know, our prophet Mohammed had an adopted child. I believe through adoption more beneficial results are gained."
But observers says such advice is expected to be of little comfort for many of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Turkish couples who annually receive artificial insemination abroad annually. According to Dr. Urman, he receives numerous messages from couples saying they will ignore the ban. But by not assisting them he fears for their safety.
"This is not right, because we should be able to direct patients to a proper place, where this is done," said Dr. Urman. "Otherwise, they will end up going to some of these centers that don't work ethically. They don't do appropriate screening tests. It's just the money they are after. There are centers like this around the world. So we would like to direct them and we would like to say OK, these are proper places to go, but now the government does not allow us to do that."
Despite the controversy, the ministry of health seems to be standing firm. Already doctors are challenging the new regulation in the administrative courts. The measure could also impact Turkey's plans to join the European Union, where the big issue has always been how European Turkey really is.