Monthly Archives: June 2012

The abortion furore: interview with Ayse Akin

Women demonstrate against a possible change to Turkey’s abortion laws on Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi last Friday.

While writing about Turkey’s abortion debate, which erupted seemingly out of nowhere last month when Prime Minister Erdogan denounced the operation as ‘murder’, I interviewed Professor Ayse Akin, one of the country’s foremost authorities on women’s health and family planning.

An obstetrician and gynaecologist, she was at the forefront of efforts to legalize abortion during the 70’s and 80’s, was consulted by the government in the lead up to legalization in 1983, and served for five years in the 90’s as general director of the Mother, Child and Family Planning Department of the Turkish Health Ministry.

She gave some interesting context to the current abortion debate.

From the founding of the republic in 1923 until the mid-1960s, Turkish leaders pursued an aggressively pro-natalist policy. World War One and the subsequent war against Greece decimated the population, and reviving it was a major concern for Ataturk.

Until 1965, contraceptives were illegal. In 1955 alone, Akin said, 500,000 women underwent self-performed or illegal abortions, as a result of which 10,000 died. “There were struggles for ten years, and eventually in 1965 we achieved the first anti-natalist family planning law,” she said. This legalized contraceptives, but abortion was only permitted where there was a medical necessity.

When Akin started working in the mid 1960s she saw many cases of women dying after attempting to perform abortions on themselves.

“in Ankara the big hospitals – state or university – all the year through used to receive at least four fatal cases per month prior to the law,” she recalled.

“You can imagine the death toll. In Hacettepe University where I was working numbers of abortion cases were admitted due to septic abortion and most of them either died immediately despite all the efforts to save them or they developed kidney and/or hepatic failures shortly after.”

Akin is worried that the hard-won changes she helped bring about may now be erased. She is also concerned by PM Erdogan’s stridently pro-natalist stance, and claims the government is neglecting Turkey’s state-run family planning schemes.

“At the moment the government is not paying for family planning, the services are getting weaker and weaker,” she said.

Another interviewee, Dr Mustafa Ziya Gunenc of Beyoglu’s German Hospital, echoed her comments, saying public-run family planning services are falling into neglect, and also bemoaned Turkey’s lack of sex education.

“There is no detailed education programme in the country,” he said. “University, primary school, high school, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education has no detailed sexual health, contraception or sexuality programme.”

You can see my article for the Christian Science Monitor here, and for Times (a while ago) here.

Semih Idiz has written interestingly on about the neglected issue of sex education in a column published in Hurriyet Daily News. From his article:

“Turks live in a country that is rapidly industrializing, and where the overwhelming majority of the population is in urban centers and is thus subject to the sociological realities of city living. Another highly significant characteristic of Turkey or relevance here is that it has one of the largest populations of young people in the world. This inevitably brings the issue of “sexuality” to the fore.

In the meantime, whether the conservative element in society likes it or not, the traditional family structure of the country is breaking down. This is not unique in a society that is rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, and many countries have gone down this path. 

It is inevitable in a society such as this that young women should not want to be trapped at home in traditional roles, and should instead be aiming for professional careers that give them independence. It is also a fact that many women in Turkey have to work out of necessity, in order to help maintain their households. 

In the meantime, given these changes in the country, educated young men who are living in an industrialized and urbanized society also want to enjoy the advantages of modern living. This of course entails types of relations with the opposite sex that are more liberal than was the case when society was still traditional.

In today’s Turkey it is also not strange to see young girls with Islamic headscarves going to movies, restaurants or concerts, or sitting at public parks hand in hand with their boyfriends. Given this situation, the importance of sexual education that also enhances respect for the opposite sex also increases.”

I would be curious to learn more about these pious headscarved women yearning for more independence. Certainly none were in evidence at the pro-choice protest held by around 500 women on Istiklal Caddesi that I attended on Friday. 

In fact there was not a single headscarf in the crowd, which seems to bode poorly for the prospects of those opposing any tightening of abortion law. It is also a depressing reflection on the depth of the cultural rift dividing Turkish society.

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The future of Somalia

Yesterday I covered a conference taking place in Istanbul that is aiming to shape the future of Somalia, probably the world’s most notorious failed state. I interviewed Somalia’s Prime Minister, Abdulweli Mohamed Ali, and the UN Special Representative to the country, Dr Augustine Mahiga.

Here is my story for the Times: 

Somalia’s al-Shabaab Islamist group will be defeated in its heartland by the end of the year, the United Nations envoy to the country predicted yesterday. 

“The conventional capacity of al-Shabaab has been seriously degraded,” Dr Augustine Mahiga, the UN’s special representative in Somalia, told the Times at a gathering in Istanbul aimed at ending two decades of lawlessness in the failed state.

The al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents have resorted to suicide bombings and guerrilla tactics after losing swathes of territory to Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union forces.

“Judging from the pace they are making I would say by the end of the year there will be considerable control over the areas of southern and central Somalia,” said Dr Mahiga, a Tanzanian diplomat.

“There is an increasing capacity by Amisom [the African Union’s taskforce in Somalia] to deploy modern weapons to decrease asymmetrical warfare.”

Today Somali politicians and representatives of 54 countries will conclude the Istanbul conference, which is aimed at charting a stable future for the wartorn nation.

Somalia’s Prime Minister, Abdulweli Mohamed Ali, told delegates that his country is ‘on the verge of a new dawn’.

But in an interview with the Times, he accused the international community of endangering this process by failing to deliver promised funds – including £1m pledged by Britain.

“The international community promised they would pay the resources for ending the transition,” said Prime Minister Ali. “They promised back in September 2011… Thus far very little resources have come.”

Somalia’s leaders are struggling to meet a deadline of August 20 to deliver the country its first functioning government since 1991, and are currently crafting a new constitution and parliament.

Foreign countries have pledged $7.3m towards this process, to be given via the UN, but so far only $200,000 has arrived, Mr Ali claimed. 

“It could be a recipe for failure if they do not deliver it,” he said. “The problem is the slow wheels of the UN.”

But he added that increased international focus, military gains against al-Shabaab, and dialogue between the country’s various factions means Somalia is poised to emerge from two decades of warfare and intermittent famine.

At the start of the Istanbul conference, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Mogadishu was now open for business.

“After a long period of instability and conflict, we now have ahead of us an opportunity for genuine peace and security,” he told delegates. 

Turkey has assumed a leading role in peace-building and humanitarian efforts in Somalia. Last August Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first non-African premier to visit Mogadishu in almost two decades.

In March this year, Turkish Airlines opened direct flights from Istanbul to Mogadishu.


You can read the published version here. The Times’s Africa correspondent Jerome Starkey has this report from the frontline, where he joined African Union troops who have seized territory from al-Shabaab.


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