Abortion Rights in Turkey exist in theory, but in practice?
Originally posted on University of Essex, Human Rights Center Blogs
By Ozlem Hangul, MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights 2011-2012, Women’s Rights Consultant and Trainer. Linkedin- Ozlem Hangul
Living in a dystopia, real or surreal?
Some of you may have read the book called “When She Woke” by Hillary Jordan. For those who haven’t had a chance to read it, it is a feminist dystopia. It describes a very dark future for women: at a future time in America where abortion is illegal on the grounds of religion and male-dominated morals, women who have abortion are incarcerated in a special kind of prison. Red-pigmented ‘chromes’ are injected to turn them red as punishment. As part of the punishment and stigmatization, their red skin persists for a time after they are released from prison which makes them vulnerable and increases their suffering. The book narrates a surreal future for women. But apart from the red chrome dye, isn’t the surreal story narrated in the book familiar and real to many women around the world? Aren’t many women stigmatized just because they make decisions about their own body? Aren’t they forced into unsafe and illegal abortions due to strict moral and legal codes?
There are many countries around the world where abortion is illegal. I am writing this piece on Turkey, however, where abortion is legal, but not easily and equally accessible.
Legal but unavailable…
In Turkey, abortion was legalized in 1983. It is legal until the 10th week after conception. This increases to 20 weeks if there is a concern about the mental or physical health of the woman, or the pregnancy is a result of rape. So far so good, right? 32 years after its legalization, however, one of my friends in Istanbul told me that her legal abortion request was refused by all four state-hospitals that she went to. On top of these refusals, she was treated badly and made to feel guilty by doctors. Her personal experience was not an isolated and unfortunate incident, as confirmed a few days ago by a women’s rights organization called Morcati. They contacted 37 state-hospitals in Istanbul to find out if the law is implemented. Only three hospitals out of the 37 agreed to provide non-emergency termination; 17 said that they could provide the service only if there was a medical emergency; the remaining 12 refused to carry out termination no matter the reason. The research also revealed that although access to abortion is quite difficult at state-hospitals; it is simple at private hospitals. The research raises three major concerns: first, the law is violated by a majority of state-hospitals; second, women cannot exercise a basic right that is legally given to them; third, women cannot access abortion equally as economic status plays an important role in determining the ease of access.
Hospitals violate the law, what emboldens them to do so?
In 2012, a draft law on abortion was proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The draft law aimed to give doctors the option not to carry out abortion on the grounds of personal belief or conscience. The draft bill never passed into law; however it was enough to affect the attitude of doctors and other health professionals. Now women’s abortion rights are at the mercy of doctors. Furthermore, the discourse of politicians around abortion, equating abortion to murder and advising women to give birth to at least three children, encourages and justifies unlawful, arbitrary refusals and makes a legal right, which was acquired over 30 years ago, non-exercisable. Women hesitate to exercise their rights due to fear of stigmatization. They are treated with neglect when they try to access abortion services. The authorities violate the right to health and the right to life of women by pushing them towards “back-alley” abortions. The policies and discourse of the authorities violate not only the right to health and the right to life but also the right to privacy; with the messaging system introduced by hospitals, families are informed about daughters’ pregnancies and abortions in a country where sexual intercourse before marriage is still considered immoral and unacceptable by the majority of society. In addition, the gap between law and practice created by the anti-abortion discourse and policies results in inequality of access to abortion rights. While most state-hospitals won’t perform abortion, private hospitals will as long as the money is paid for the operation. Women, especially young and low-income women, are put into great danger by being left with no option other than “back-alley” abortions. Doesn’t this sound like a dystopia; do we really need red-chrome?
When abortion was illegal back in the ‘80’s in Turkey, ten to fifteen thousand women were dying each year, and approximately the same number were left with long-term disabilities due to unsafe abortions. 30 years ago, the rationale behind legalization was to prevent this high mortality rate. Illegalization does not prevent unwanted pregnancies, and does not decrease the number of abortions. Research shows that after legalization, the number of abortions decreased by threefold, maternal mortality rate decreased sixfold, and women’s life expectancy increased by 14 years.
Abortion rights are among the most important rights of women, closely related to many fundamental human rights protected by international agreements. These include but are not limited to, the right to life, the right to health, the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the right to non-discrimination and equality, the right to privacy and the right to decide the number and spacing of children. Turkey has a duty to protect, promote, and make these rights enjoyable equally to all citizens. However, the country breaches its international obligations due to the current gap between legislation and its implementation. The government of Turkey needs to make sure that its current abortion law is implemented by all hospitals – both state and private – without any unlawful and arbitrary restrictions, and that women can access and exercise their rights equally without any discrimination.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.