For years Erdoğan has been warning of Turkey’s downfall, fearing that “They want to eradicate the Turkish nation!” and “If we continue the existing trend [of decreasing birthrates], 2038 will mark disaster for us,” and calling upon Turkish women to fulfill their maternal duty. But who is this unnamed enemy and what does Erdoğan have planned for them?
By Melissa Seelye
The fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent decision to wage war against women’s right to abortion in Turkey was borne out of the controversy surrounding the Uludere massacre, in which 34 Kurds were killed by Turkish F16s in December 2011, is no coincidence. Following much criticism and a prolonged investigation of the incident, Erdoğan suddenly re-directed his rhetoric of blame-shifting and evading a public apology to the victim’s families during a speech in May 2012 to the Women’s Branch Congress of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). In it he condemned both abortion and Caesarean births, infamously announcing: “I know these are steps taken to prevent this country’s population from growing further. I see abortion as murder, and I call upon those circles and members of the media who oppose my comments: You live and breathe Uludere. I say every abortion is an Uludere.” The racist implications of this statement suggest that Erdoğan’s fertility crusade is much more a product of his ongoing paranoia surrounding the persistently higher birthrate (compared to the rest of Turkey) in the predominantly Kurdish regions of Southeast Turkey, than of his commitment to a moral or religious attack on women’s rights.
Of course, as with the vast majority of political platforms that cite women’s rights (in whatever form) as a danger to the morality or prosperity of a country, it would be naïve and short-sighted to assume that Erdoğan’s anti-abortion agenda seeks solely to strip women of their rights. Certainly, women of all ethnicities and backgrounds in Turkey will bear the brunt of Erdoğan’s plans to boost Turkey’s birthrate, which now center upon the latest draft bill that will allegedly criminalize abortions performed by certified practitioners or in local health clinics, and require a “reconsideration” period following counseling and listening to the fetal heartbeat before a woman can finally go through with the procedure. Additionally, if such policies are enacted, they will of course be most restrictive to women who are poor and/or living in rural areas in Turkey. Yet, there are two crucial questions that are missing from this kind of response. First, why anti-abortion now? And second, though it becomes largely rhetorical after addressing the first, whose birthrate is Erdoğan trying to boost?
After all, it is crucial to point out that given the relationship between economic growth and the accompanying improvements to education and healthcare, Turkey’s declining birthrate should have been expected, and, given similar global trends in industrial nations, should certainly not be the catastrophe Erdoğan is depicting it as. Of course, he references recent economic recessions in the West and Japan’s difficulties as a rapidly aging nation. Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible not to draw some connection between Erdoğan’s zealous promotions of Turkish couples having at least three children and the fact that the TÜİK places the 2011 total fertility rate in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast Anatolia Region at 3.42 children—more than double the respective rates of the Istanbul, Marmara, and Aegean regions. Clearly, denying abortions to Kurdish women, to acknowledge those who vehemently deny the enduring racism of the Turkish state and maintain that Erdoğan will not discriminate in his anti-abortion policy, would only further increase the birthrate in Kurdish regions. One can only imagine that this would fatally undermine Erdoğan’s political agenda, especially given his intolerance towards the Kurdish determination struggle as a terrorist activity, as well as the fact that recent anti-terrorism legislation has been used disproportionately against Kurdish politicians, activists, and civilians alike.In Turkey, abortion was first legalized for medical reasons and in cases of fetal impairment in 1965 and 1967 respectively.
Then, amidst increasing numbers of unsafe abortions and resulting deaths and complications, Turkey legalized elective abortions for all women within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy (or up to 20 weeks under extenuating circumstances) with the Population Planning Law of 24 May 1983. The law also allowed for access to family planning resources and services, including sterilization, which marked a move towards population control that has continued since. Thus, the question of why Erdoğan has launched this move towards population growth now is an important one, especially given the fact that among the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Turkey was listed as one of only six countries with a sustainable fertility rate in the organisation’s 2011 report, in addition to having the lowest rates of employment and satisfaction with water quality, alongside the highest rate of infant mortality.
Granted, Turkey’s total fertility rate has reportedly since fallen under the 2.1 children born per woman needed for population replenishment, and according to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) released last month, the median age in the country has now exceeded 30 for the first time. Yet, in the face of clear indications of Turkey’s inability to adequately accommodate the existing population, Erdoğan’s insistence on couples having at least three children (if not four or five) in order to maintain Turkey’s dynamism and economic growth, defending the idea by saying that “every child comes with god-given livelihood”, are far from convincing. In fact, they bring us back to the issue of the convenient timing of the AKP’s emerging anti-abortion platform.
Moreover, as early as 2008, Erdoğan was speaking of the still unnamed enemy to Turkish security that he later mentioned in his speech equating abortion to the Uludere massacre. On this earlier occasion, again to an audience of Turkish women, Erdoğan warned, “They want to eradicate the Turkish nation!” and urged women to retaliate by having more children. Then, again in 2010, he reiterated the message, saying, “If we continue the existing trend [of decreasing birthrates], 2038 will mark disaster for us,” which is in line with the point at which some contend Kurds may outnumber Turks in Turkey, should the current gap in birthrates persist. Also, given the fact that Turkey has waged no war in recent memory aside from the one taking place within its own borders against the “terrorists” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who else could this unidentified enemy be? When added to the high Kurdish birthrate, ongoing armed conflict with the PKK, rampant persecution of Kurds on charges of terrorism, and, lest we forget, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s historical precedent of brutally suppressing Kurdish separatism, it becomes too clear that Erdoğan’s ultimate target in the current war on women is the Kurdish population of Turkey.
So, the question that then must be asked is what comes next, after the current push for legislative restrictions to abortions and Cesarean sections and alleged plans for economic incentives to families with more children? With Erdoğan planning to run in the next presidential election in 2014 and openly calling for replacing Turkey’s existing parliamentary system with an “executive presidency,” thus consolidating his political power, should he win, such forecasts are especially significant. Now is precisely the time to begin anticipating what (President) Erdoğan’s “last resort” strategy to counteract (perhaps neutralize would be more accurate in terms of the direction he seems to be moving) population growth in the Kurdish regions of Turkey might look like. Though he has already revealed some indications, namely in terms of his recent move towards ensuring the population growth of ethnic Turks, which, with Turkey’s policy of military conscription, translates to more soldiers, such discussions should be a driving force behind criticism of Erdoğan’s emerging political blueprint for Turkey’s future.
Rather than becoming completely consumed by the strategic debate the AKP has stoked over the last nine months with their draft bills and statements aimed at cementing abortion as a tenet of political disco
urse, a united rejection of this new agenda, both in its current sexist form and its future racist dimensions, would be infinitely more powerful. If Turkish feminists fail to see that the Kurdish threat to Erdoğan’s “One nation, one country, one flag, one State!” vision—the striking resemblance to Hitler’s “Ein Staat, ein Volk, ein Führer!” of which, Ece Temelkuran pointed out in a 2012 article for Al-Akhbar English, has been almost universally ignored—is at the heart of his insistence on Turkish women bearing more Turkish citizens, Turkey’s divisions along gender and racial lines will only deepen, just as Erdoğan wants them to. As the year 2038 draws increasingly near, such division would prime (President) Erdoğan and his predecessors for implementing increasingly drastic methods of eliminating the Kurdish threat to the Turkish dream.
Melissa Seelye is a Canadian-based freelance editor and independent researcher focusing on women and minorities. Melissa is currently conducting research on colonialism and women, with a focus on Kurdish women throughout Kurdistan and abroad.
 At the same time, it should be pointed out that as stateless peoples, no census data and very little alternative statistical information exists on the Kurdish population in Turkey aside from that released by the TUIK and other state-affiliated sources, so the question of whether these numbers have been or could in the future be manipulated to suit the nationalist Turkish agenda is a pressing one.