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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