Reproductive rights are shaped by different political ideologies and remain a hotly contested policy issue in most parts of the world. In Turkey the disputes concerning these rights have grown since 2002, when a conservative government assumed power. Analyzing how both governmental and civil society actors have discussed and framed reproductive policies primarily in reference to religion since the ascension of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party; AKP), this article focuses on debates that took place in 2012 about abortion and caesarean birth. The critical discourse and frame analysis, based on online speeches and media articles of these actors from November 2002 through 2014, reveal a remarkable diversity both in the interpretation of Islamic teachings and in a group of actors with similar ideological orientation. The article concludes by arguing for the need to move beyond the Islamic versus secular divide and to denaturalize and dehomogenize the role of religion in the public sphere.
Reproductive rights are shaped by different political ideologies and remain one of the most hotly contested policy issues in most parts of the world. In Turkey, the debates over these rights have grown since 2002, when a conservative government led by the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party; AKP) assumed power. This article analyzes the discourses and framings of policies regarding these rights by governmental and civil society (CS) actors at the individual and collective levels. It focuses on the ruling party’s recent attempts to ban abortion and to reduce the number of caesarean births, as well as on the CS responses to these policy changes.
Reproductive policies in Turkey are often assumed to be influenced by religious conservative politics. However, there has been little inquiry into how religion and conservatism are practiced and reinterpreted by different governmental and social actors depending on historical and sociopolitical context and power relations.
This article analyzes how a diverse set of actors discuss and frame reproduction and childbirth. We make an analytic distinction between discourse and framing in our discussion in order to identify actors’ presentation (framing) of the issue as well as the discourses that influence the way they speak about it to the public (e.g., nationalist discourses are expressed by framing abortion as a danger to the Turkish nation). We define framing as a process of specific argumentation, interpretation, and understanding of a particular issue. Discourse, on the other hand, refers to dominant ideas and paradigms that define accepted systems of knowledge and practices that influence the thoughts and actions of actors in an unconscious way. To explain the forms that discourse takes in specific issues, it is necessary to study how actors frame those issues.
Our analysis shows that it is not only those political actors who have an explicit, public religious identity who refer to Islam and instrumentalize religious framings and discourses in their policy justifications. We find that other actors who appear to endorse secular viewpoints often frame their arguments in religious terms when talking about abortion and caesarean birth as well. By analyzing how and why these different actors invoke religion in these contexts, we argue that positions on reproductive policies are much more complex and pragmatic than a simple Islamic versus secular divide would suggest. This examination reveals that reproductive policies are interpreted and framed differently even within a group of actors that share a similar ideological orientation. We conclude that actors’ actions and frames depend on how they view the nation’s welfare, identity, and economic development as indexed to women’s bodies, as well as whether they attribute religious meaning to populational biopolitics.
We begin the article by discussing how reproductive rights have been presented and debated generally, and then present a brief history of reproductive policies in Turkey. Next we turn to the recent changes in policies on abortion and caesarean birth and analyze how they have been debated by relevant governmental (i.e., AKP politicians) and CS actors. Our analysis concludes with a discussion of how these discourses and frames are intertwined with other factors, such as nationalism and conservatism.
Reproductive Rights and Policies
Reproductive rights are based on the fundamental human rights enumerated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other core human rights treaties. However, their regulations are left to individual countries. States try to control a range of reproductive issues, including the decision to exercise abstinence, the use of contraception, and childbirth methods. While these are all controversial, abortion is perhaps the most debated topic in many countries. State and civil society actors disagree about under which conditions and how late in the pregnancy abortions can be performed. In the United States, for example, the debate between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates has been ongoing for almost forty years. Around the world, legislation regulating women’s reproductive rights remains diverse. While in certain countries abortion is prohibited under every condition, in others, women have broader legal access to the procedure (Caivano and Marcus-Delgado 2012, 108).
It is often in “pronatalist” countries (Myrdal and Myrdal 1934), where a woman’s social value is linked to conceiving and bearing children, that abortion is prohibited or highly discouraged through state policies. In these countries, motherhood is praised and women who choose not to have children are “considered deficient, incomplete, or unfulfilled” (Parry 2005, 134) and often stigmatized (Kumar et al. 2009; Norris et al. 2011). Also, ideologies such as nationalism and religious conservatism are often instrumentalized by political leaders in the service of pronatalism, thus making it difficult for women’s groups to defend women’s rights to reproductive autonomy even in secular countries (Heinen and Portet 2010). In addition, politics of reproduction create stratification, where some categories of people (dominant groups) are empowered to nurture and reproduce, while mostly minorities are disempowered (Colen 1995).
Within women’s movements, reproductive rights are often part of the struggle to eliminate discrimination and domestic abuse and to resist religious and traditional norms that violate the rights and reduce the well-being and autonomy of women. However, they are still controversial issues, and there are sociopolitical actors who try to limit their exercise. These actors usually argue that restrictions on reproductive rights are necessary for increasing population size, preserving religious values, and protecting the traditional family, but they “fail to acknowledge the impact of these interventions on the lives of women and their communities” (Ginsburg and Rapp 1995, 4). Using “a seemingly beneficent discourse on morality and the family” (quoted in Ginsburg and Rapp 1995, 4), political actors’ denial of women’s access to means to regulate their fertility can be considered a form of “euphemized violence” (Anagnost 1995, 34; see also Marre and Briggs 2009).
Abortion rights in democratic capitalist states are mainly discussed within the framework of women’s rights; that is, these countries emphasize women and children’s health as opposed to the protection of the fetus. However, historically, state, church, and capitalist interests have also had an impact on reproductive policies and practices in these countries. In Eastern Europe during the socialist or communist era, on the other hand, these policies were largely discussed and framed within the context of public health, population growth, and women’s involvement in the workforce (Ginsburg and Rapp 1991). In the postcommunist era, the emphasis has shifted to creating a newly democratic state, decreasing welfare support, and fostering women’s self-determination (Gal and Kligman 2000). Consequently, the debate between women’s rights activists and political actors trying to control women’s reproductive rights remains an important part of policy making in most parts of the world, especially in countries with conservative and nationalist governments. Moreover, the differences among national contexts also show that discourses and frames used by actors are contextual and that a critical analysis should take this context into consideration.
Regulating and Framing Reproductive Rights in Turkey
Reproductive policies are deeply shaped by broader social, economic, and political concerns and debates about modernity, economic success, and the future of the nation. They are presented to the public through powerful discourses to gain support. Both the content of these policies and the discourses of the political actors may change over time. Within the Turkish context, reproductive policies need to be analyzed with respect to feminist movements and the historical role the state has assigned to women. Turkish feminist scholars have examined how women symbolized modernist ideas of development during the reformist period of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and during Turkey’s modernization in the twentieth century (see Kandiyoti 1988; Sirman 1989). Women acquired suffrage and the right to be parliamentarians in 1934, but they were still primarily expected to be patriotic mothers and wives. Their duty was to preserve the honor of the nation and to ensure the nation’s future. As Kandiyoti (1988, 47) explains, although women were emancipated and unveiled through this modernization process,1 a “new compensatory symbolism and a new veil” took place—that of chastity and virtue. Women started to experience new forms of sexual repression, since their chastity and virtue became the essence of the new modern nation-state not only on a symbolic level but also in terms of bearing the “responsibility” of producing new generations of the Turkish nation.
Recent work by feminist scholars (Koğacıoğlu 2004; Miller 2007; Parla 2001; Potuoğlu-Cook 2006) has furthered the critical analysis Kandiyoti started and continued the questioning of the modern-traditional divide. This research shows, on the one hand, how the establishment of a nation-state, rather than completely liberating women, incorporated old and invented new, more sophisticated techniques for the control of women and their private spaces, especially their reproductive capacities. On the other hand, it still presents itself as liberating women from traditional forces, a discourse that Koğacıoğlu (2004, 121) refers to as “the tradition effect.” In both cases, women’s main function in society is still reproduction, and as Parla (2001, 69, 66) states, it is “necessary to recognize the intervention of states—and not just those deemed barbaric or traditional—into the lives, identities, and bodies of national subjects,” since “the state’s routinized intrusion into women’s bodies comprises a fundamental facet of its sovereign claim over social relations in the name of the nation.”
In practice, nationalist and demographic discourses worked through specific regulations throughout the late Ottoman and early republican period. Following the declaration of Tanzimat in 1839, the Ottoman Empire started adopting Western regulations on reproduction and undertook legislative reforms in modern liberal fashion by appropriating the French and Italian legislations respectively. Like the French legislation, abortion was criminalized in the Ottoman Empire in 1859. However, the new regulations emphasized women’s reproductive rights, a departure from the earlier Muslim scholarship and practice, which focused on the rights of the fetus over those of a woman (see Miller 2007, 359–62).
Similarly, the regulation of abortion and control of women’s bodies has become the locus of the new biopolitics in the modern Turkish nation-state, which “explicitly recognizes the family as a political entity and relies heavily on the notion that reproduction is a social (and political) relation”; thus “reproduction as a political duty [becomes] one of the most basic attributes of citizenship” (Miller 2007, 352), rendering motherhood crucial for women’s citizenship. During the early republican period (1919–23), population growth was encouraged by the new Turkish national government, because the country needed a new workforce to restore the economy. Abortion was regulated in the old Penal Code (1926) and was forbidden with the argument of “defending the right to life” of the fetus. In 1936 the article regulating abortion was redefined and framed as “protection of health and racial unity,” and the ban on abortion was justified as the “defense of generations” (Karaömerlioğlu 2012). In addition to banning abortion, the early republican government gradually introduced new legislation to criminalize contraception and sterilization, interpreting these acts as crimes against the perpetuation of the Turkish race and nation (Miller 2007, 363). Thus controlling abortion became “part of the codified legal system, defined as an issue of public morality, of liberty, of rights, of choice, and eventually of collective national integrity”; the woman’s womb became “a political place, . . . as the repository of the health of the race and the rights of the citizen,” where threats against the biological rights of the collective (i.e., nation) might occur (ibid., 366, 361). At this time, abortion was understood as a problem that needed to be curtailed to achieve population growth and economic progress. This framing of abortion clearly demonstrates the influence of nationalist and demographic discourses as well as economic ones; the demographic growth of Turkish nationals was necessary for the construction of the newly formed nation-state and for its economic development. In this framing, women’s bodies and the nation are interlinked explicitly, and modernization, Westernization, and economic development are seen as dependent on the protection of women, the home, and family (Koğacıoğlu 2004, 132). Women’s reproductive rights were thereby understood and framed in relation to the nation’s future. Concerns over the nation’s well-being and cultural preservation justified the restrictions imposed on women’s rights in the early republican period.
The pronatalist policies of the early republican period started to give way to antinatalist policies in the 1960s. Rapid population growth was achieved by this time but became a problem with the economic downturn and the high unemployment rate in this decade. The government adopted a new birth control policy with the introduction of Law No. 557 on Population Planning in 1965 (Acar and Altunok 2013, 21). However, this law did not allow abortion except in cases of serious health problems of the fetus and/or in cases that would put a pregnant woman’s life at risk. Although abortion was still forbidden in the 1970s, approximately 350,000 to 500,000 abortions were performed in this period, and 25,000 women lost their lives due to unsafely performed abortions. Many more suffered from serious permanent injuries or health complications (Karaömerlioğlu 2012). To prevent such consequences of illegal abortions, state policies encouraged birth control methods. In the 1970s experts and doctors proposed a series of measures to regulate abortion, and in 1979 they asked for its legalization.
Through the amendment of Law No. 2827 on Population Planning in 1983, abortion became legal. This law permitted abortion until the tenth week of pregnancy, with extensions beyond this date in case of illness of the fetus or risks to the pregnant woman. It redefined the procedure as “emptying the womb,” rather than “abortion of baby.” This reflects a shift from framing and understanding abortion as “right to life” to a more technical and impersonal medical framing. Since 1983 the mortality rate of pregnant women undergoing abortion has decreased drastically as a consequence of the legalization of abortion. Interestingly, in recent decades the number of abortions has also diminished, from 18 percent in 1993 to 10 percent in 2008 (see Kürtaj Yasaklanamazn.d.).
Reproductive policies in Turkish history were thus interpreted or framed according to socioeconomic needs and circumstances. Heated debate over such policies resumed in the early 2000s with the inception of the AKP and its rise to power in 2002. The AKP identifies itself as a conservative democratic party. However, many refer to it as an Islamic or religious conservative party because of its leaders’ roots in the Islamist politics of earlier decades (see Yavuz 2009). Unlike other Islamic conservative parties, the AKP’s objectives include economic neoliberalism and development and, at least initially, membership in the European Union (EU), all within the framework of state laicism (Akdoğan 2004; Akdoğan 2009, 210; Erdoğan 2004; Yavuz 2009, 2). In its early years of governance the AKP committed itself to reforms as part of the EU accession path, which had gained momentum after 1999, when the EU accepted Turkey’s candidacy. The legal reforms undertaken during AKP rule have been of great importance for Turkey; however, reproductive policies have retained the influence of previous practices, considering women solely responsible for the national well-being and upbringing of future generations.
Since coming to power, the AKP has repeatedly attempted to change reproductive policies pertaining to caesarean birth and abortion rights. These attempts have often been attributed to its Islamic ideological orientation. By analyzing the framings of policies on abortion and caesarean birth, this article shows that policy positions are complex and cannot be explained merely by the Islamic versus secular divide. In doing so, we aim to denaturalize and dehomogenize the understanding of religion and sociopolitical actors in the domain of politics by examining how reproductive policies are interpreted and framed differently even within a group of ideologically similar actors. Such an approach overcomes the simplistic characterization of a political party or group by its ideological stance, presenting instead its diverse in-group perspectives.
Our study examines the discourses and frames of governmental and CS actors to determine the positions of different actors in the abortion and caesarean birth debates in Turkey.
Framing is a process of specific argumentation of a particular issue, and different frames show how various actors interpret, define, reproduce, problematize, and give particular meaning to that issue, as well as what arguments and references the authors use to legitimize their arguments and decisions (see Bacchi 1999, 2005; Benford and Snow 2000; Triandafyllidou and Fotiou 1998). Discourse, on the other hand, refers to dominant ideas and paradigms that define accepted knowledge and practices in a specific sociopolitical domain (Foucault 2001). Frames and discourses are generally consistent. For example, an actor might adopt a “conflict frame,” using aggressive phrases such as “They are our enemy” or “We are threatened.” Consistent with this frame, he or she can employ a nationalist discourse of “we versus the other.” Taking into account different ways to frame a concrete policy issue clarifies the kind of discourses that influence these frames. Simply put, looking into what political actors say and how they act—not into what they represent on a normative identity basis—avoids superficial characterizations of actors and their practices based solely on actors’ a priori identities and ideological orientations. Thus this research analyzes the discourses shaping political actors’ framing of policy issues beyond their assumed identity-driven policy making.
For this study, we collected online speeches and media articles from November 2002, when the AKP came to power, to the end of 2014. There were roughly forty-three public discussions pertaining to issues of abortion and caesarean birth during this period. We examined 120 public speeches of politicians, civil servants, and CS members published in newspaper articles and analyzed all the speeches of the AKP members and the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, hereafter Diyanet), as well as the reactions of the CS members to these declarations. Most of these discussions took place in 2012, when the AKP proposed a new law to limit abortion and reduce the number of caesarean births; consequently, most of our analysis is focused on these debates.
The AKP’s Attempts to Ban Abortion and Limit Caesarean Births
The AKP’s Islamism is much debated, but as with many of the Islamist political parties, its traditional focus on the family as the core element of the Turkish nation is undoubtedly conservative (Akdoğan 2004; Akdoğan 2009, 210; Erdoğan 2004; Yavuz 2009). It is within this frame that the party’s many attempts to limit or ban abortion need to be studied. In 2003, for example, it tried amending the draft law on the rights of the disabled (Law No. 5378 on the Disabled and Amendment of Certain Laws and Decrees) by introducing an article that would restrict abortions beyond the ten-week limit for cases where the health of the fetus or woman is in danger as set by Law No. 2827 (1983). Since women NGOs protested this attempt, the suggested article was eventually removed (Acar et al. 2007, 51). A similar debate on abortion arose again recently in 2012 when the AKP announced the draft of a new law aiming to severely limit or prohibit abortion.
Erdoğan on Abortion and Caesarean Births
Analyzed in depth, the then–prime minister (PM) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speeches on abortion reflect, contrary to common expectations, more than merely a religious discourse. Indeed, his speeches contain substantial elements of nationalist and conservative discourses. For example, in his speech at the Grand National Assembly after the Uludere incident, in which thirty-four Kurds were killed by Turkish jets as they crossed the border into Turkey,2 Erdoğan argued that “every abortion is a murder. . . . Every abortion is an Uludere. . . . There is no difference between killing a child in the mother’s womb or after birth” (Erdoğan 2012a). While not immediately apparent, the argument contains nationalist elements because Erdoğan dismisses the killing of thirty-four people as “collateral damage,” denying any state responsibility and adding to the pain of Turkey’s Kurds,3 who suffered from similar human rights abuses over the last three decades. The highest government official equating the killing of thirty-four civilians with the personal choice not to have a child was seen as an insult by Kurds, an ethnic group struggling to get the Turkish state not only to recognize their rights but also to admit its past mistakes. While in these discussions and in Erdoğan’s speech there was an emphasis on not killing the fetus, Kurds felt that their lives did not matter as much, since the government neither found the ones responsible for the killing nor officially apologized for it. Moreover, some (e.g., Baydar 2012) emphasized the nationalist elements in the speech by pointing out that in the past and present the directives to have more children and not have abortions targeted Turks only, while Kurds in the southeast were subjected to population planning.
To legitimize his attempts to ban abortion, Erdoğan (2012b) frequently used the West as a point of reference, arguing that “there are laws forbidding abortion in the West. We are also working on a similar path, which also represents our values.” He opposed the understanding of abortion as a woman’s right to decide (pro-choice) and framed the ban of abortion as a “defense of women and their health.” Such an argument can be found also in the following speech:
People who say that no one can control and possess a women’s body should ask themselves why we interfere in suicide attempts. You can tell them, “If somebody jumps off a bridge, no one should interfere, but allow the person to exercise his or her right.” Is there anything more stupid? In the case of abortion we are talking about double cruelty: the murder of the fetus and harm to the woman. . . . We base our arguments on science. (ibid.)
In this example Erdoğan twists the focus from abortion as a woman’s right to the need to ban abortion to save her from cruelty. He uses such forms of explanation (frames) to appeal to popular impulses to defend “vulnerable” women, with the help of an analogy. The use of such frames thus becomes a tool to serve certain policies (e.g., ban on abortion) and discourses (e.g., “women need to be saved”).
Erdoğan has generally compared abortion to murder and suicide and has used references to science and the West to strengthen his argument. However, his reference to the West entailed not a specific country or an organization, like the EU, but an ideal and rational abstraction; his reference to Europe represented the West as a homogeneous entity. His framing of abortion also highlights the religious discourse of the sacred role of women as mothers. In a speech in 2012, for example, he argued that
no one has the right to kill the fetus. . . . Feminists say that no one can interfere in their bodies. . . . But we will not let them fool us. Feminists do not accept the status of the mother. . . . They complain that we say “mothers” instead of “women.” . . . In our religion the paradise is under the feet of mothers, not fathers. We know the real value of mothers. . . . We are a conservative democratic party. (Erdoğan 2012d)
While Erdoğan’s reference to the role of mothers sounds as though it were based on religion, this may not be the case. Religion cannot be used as a strong legitimizing factor against abortion, since Islam allows abortion, even though there is a debate over the time frame during which it is allowed.4 Concerns about reproductive policies (especially abortion) are not as firmly grounded in religion as they are in other discourses (e.g., national or ethnic preservation, and demographic growth for the sake of economic growth).
Similar to abortion, caesarean births are a core problem in the AKP’s politics. In Turkey around 54 percent of all births occur by caesarean section. This figure has increased quickly in recent years, reaching 90 percent in some private hospitals (Sert 2012).5 Caesarean birth is commonly chosen by upper-middle-class women, which shows that it is understood as a modern and professional health service (Acar and Altunok 2013, 17–18). Another reason for the high number of caesarean births is the profit hospitals make from the operation, which typically costs between two hundred and five thousand euros (Haber 3652011). The government has conducted research in this field and prepared awareness-raising and educational programs to promote natural births. In 2012 a new law restricting caesarean births to cases of medical necessity (e.g., where there are concerns over the health of the mother or baby) was passed (Law No. 6354). Women can no longer electively choose caesarean sections as a form of delivery. Doctors and hospitals can be fined if they perform the procedure without a medically proven need (T242012). In contrast, there are financial incentives for hospitals that perform normal deliveries (Zaman2012).
The issue of whether caesarean births are a necessity or a choice has generated a heated debate among politicians, experts, and the general public. Some experts oppose the very high number of caesarean deliveries as unnecessary surgeries, arguing that when caesareans, like any surgery, are performed in the absence of medical need, there can be unwanted complications that put women at unnecessary risk (Sonay 2012). Others, in contrast, argue that women have the right to choose how they want to give birth. Restrictions of this right are interpreted, according to Simten Coşar, as advocacy for normal deliveries to venerate the sacred role of women as mothers. In this view, women must suffer, since the pain of normal delivery glorifies mothers (quoted in Akarsu-Çelik 2012b).
Regardless of medical, market, or maternity discourses that usually prevail in discussions about this issue, Erdoğan’s framing of the high number of caesarean births is similar to his framing of the issue of abortion—as a problem of demography (a decrease in population) and as a national and economic problem. Caesarean births threaten Turkish ethnic survival and economic development, he argues, because women who deliver their babies by caesarean section usually end up with no more than three children.6 He saw arguments favoring abortion and caesarean births as a conspiracy to destroy the Turkish population:
I am against births by caesarean. . . . Caesarean decreases the population. . . . I know it is all a plan. . . . It is a hypocritical plan that aims to remove the Turkish nation from the face of this world. We should not be naive and give in to these plans that prevent the rise of the population of our nation. . . . We have only one aim: our nation will be raised to the level of modern civilization. For this goal to be achieved, we need a young and dynamic population. People are the basis of the economy: if we have people, we have capital, labor, consumption, and production. We will therefore do our best to increase our young population. Otherwise, we will start observing a decline in population by 2037 and have a population composed of the elderly. (Erdoğan 2012c)
Erdoğan (2014), after becoming president, expanded his nationalist and demographic discourse on reproductive policies by declaring the use of birth control “treason” and blaming those who promote it for having “desiccated [the country’s] generations.”
Erdoğan (2012d) also criticized the doctors who performed caesarean sections for monetary gain: “Their problem is only money, money. It has nothing to do with easier delivery, but with earning enormous sums of money. . . . The population of this nation has to rise. . . . The most important element of economic power is the population.” In his framing of the problem, caesarean birth and abortion had nothing to do with women’s health (although they were both surgeries); women were merely the means of reproducing citizens for the sake of conserving the Turkish nation and improving the economy. Reproductive policies are thus stretched and bent, or framed, in a specific way (Lombardo et al. 2009) to suit higher national and economic aims; they are therefore influenced by nationalist and economic discourses, which construct a unified nation and economic growth as national goals.
AKP Politicians’ Approach to Caesarean Births and Abortion
Like Erdoğan, Fatma Şahin (2012), then minister of family and social affairs, framed caesarean sections as unhealthy by referring to science and to European standards for limiting them:
We have to look at what science and rationality tell us. European standards are what we want to achieve, right? Science tells us that caesareans are medical surgeries and that they should not exceed the 15–20 percent ratio. This is the world and European averages and standards. . . . Even in the European country with the highest caesarean rate, there is no ratio higher than this. . . . Caesareans represent a problem for women’s health, and for this reason, what could be more suitable than reaching European standards in the case of caesarean births?
However, Şahin’s (2012) points of reference with respect to abortion were controversial:
Recent studies [in Turkey] show that abortion has increased to such a significant extent that it is often used as a form of birth control, but the right to life begins in the mother’s womb. . . . Some would call this the right to choose, while some call it the right to life. Opposing views can come from Others. One should not reject an idea just because it comes from that opposing side. We are becoming polarized because of this. We will engage in awareness-raising on this issue and teach women not to use abortion as contraception.
When one compares the two quotes, it is evident that Şahin tries to legitimize her claims about caesarean births by referring to European science and practices, while her argument for abortion is limited to its use as a contraception method. Thus, when discussing abortion, she does not refer to the West or to women’s rights over their own bodies, which is a widely accepted norm. It might be argued that she refrained from European references in the latter case because abortion is allowed in every European country but Malta, Poland, and Northern Ireland.
Polemics about abortion rose especially in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape. Current legislation allows abortion in the case of health problems, incest, or rape until the twentieth week of pregnancy. Some AKP members, including some ministers, argued that women should not be allowed to have abortions even in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape. The then–minister of health, Recep Akdağ, claimed in 2012 that abortion should be performed only in cases of health risks, since it would not change the experience of a raped woman. He claimed that the state would take care of the child if needed and demanded higher penalties for rapists in such cases (Akdağ 2012). Following Akdağ’s controversial claims, the president of the parliamentary commission on human rights, AKP parliamentarian Ayhan Sefer Üstün, used similar arguments against abortion:
If we killed the child who is a product of rape, then we would commit a much graver offense than the rapist did. . . . If the mother in the case of rape is innocent, so is the child. . . . If the mother does not want to take care of this child, the state will. . . . In the West there is a huge debate about this issue. . . . This is one of the major debates in the pre-election campaign in the United States. . . . My sister gave birth to her child even though he has Down syndrome. This is Allah’s mercy. Allah will decide on the child’s life. (Üstün 2012)
The parliamentarian redirects the focus from the victim of rape to the unborn child, who has the right to life, by referring to Allah’s will. He furthermore compares a congenital disorder (Down syndrome) to rape to attenuate the latter by disregarding the fact that it is an assault on women. However, he carefully refers to Islam to legitimize the right to life (of the child) and strategically avoids the issue of rape itself. A similar reference to Islam can be found in the statement of the AKP mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, who in the case of abortion after rape asked: “Why should the child be blamed for the mother’s mistake? [italics added] Why shouldn’t she kill herself instead of killing the child? Some say, ‘This is my body and I do what I want.’ But human life is in the hands of Allah. How can you take what Allah has given?” (Gökçek 2012). In contrast to Akdağ’s arguments, in this case religious discourse is blatantly used to protect life, and Allah’s will is put above a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body. Such conservative positions implicitly consider women responsible for incidents of rape, a perspective often seen in Turkish politics. In these views, women are seen as having invited rape and thus deserve to be killed for disgracing their families.
In a TV discussion in September 2012 (Habertürk 2012), two women members of conservative parties, İmren Aykut, the ex–minister of labor and social issues from the Anavatan Partisi (Motherland Party; ANAP),7 who established the Kadının Statüsü Genel Müdürlüğü (Directorate General on the Status of Women; KSGM), and Zeynep Karahan Uslu, an AKP parliamentarian and a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunity for Women and Men, discussed the issue of abortion. While both women came from traditional and conservative right-wing parties in Turkey, their approaches to abortion in the case of rape diverged. Although opposed to abortion in general, Aykut defended the right to it in the case of rape, arguing that the experience could be painful to women and that one should not privilege an unborn child over living members of a family. In contrast, Uslu stressed that the Turkish legislation was in accordance with UN conventions and raised a counterpoint: “If all civilized cultures are against death penalties, and if we also do not kill rapists for committing their crimes, why should we kill a baby? . . . The raped mother should give birth to the baby, who would be taken care of by the state.” To strengthen her argument and sensitize emotions regarding babies as living (and the most vulnerable) humans, Uslu showed pictures of newborn babies and babies in the womb as completely developed human beings, stating that they do not deserve to be killed just because they have been conceived during a woman’s rape. Although both are members of right-wing conservative parties, the two women used discourses reflecting different framings of abortion. Many AKP members do not perceive women as “victims” of rape but rather as “raped” mothers, whose role is to give birth to the baby. Thus it is the unborn baby, rather than the woman who became pregnant against her will, who is given greater priority.
The Diyanet has also participated in abortion debates. The Diyanet’s and the AKP’s framings, as seen below, legitimize the ban on abortion by using religious references such as “right to life,” “sanctity of motherhood,” and “Allah’s will.” The president of the Diyanet, Mehmet Görmez, has made the following remarks on the issue:
Science and theologians agree that a child in a womb is a living being independent of his mother. It is possible that the European Court of Human Rights does not want to acknowledge this scientific truth, which is also why it [the court] constantly defends the position that it is not clear when life begins. . . . The fetus in the mother’s womb has the right to life. Not even his mother or father has any property right over him, and for this reason they cannot decide about his life and cannot give up on him. . . . The pregnant woman has no right to decide what she is going to do with her body. . . . Her duty is to care for and protect the child. . . . Only in special cases like rape or illness of the fetus is it, however, necessary to further debate this issue, but for each specific case separately, and not generalizing the debate. (Görmez 2012)
Görmez criticizes the unclear position of the European court regarding the beginning of life. According to him, life is God’s property, and thus no one has the right to terminate it. He also privileges the fetus over the woman’s body and the parents’ decision. By framing abortion in terms of the right to life, he insists that the fetus is a living human being since its inception, regardless of the many Islamic interpretations that allow abortion during a specific time span (usually between 40 and 120 days) before the fetus acquires a soul. To back up his claims, Görmez also uses scientific arguments as if science is clear about when life begins. This is another example of how religious (and scientific) arguments are used by governmental actors arbitrarily to frame an issue for specific political goals and needs.
Many counter-voices have arisen nationwide, particularly in the CS, to criticize such conservative religious frames of abortion and caesarean births. Interestingly, even most of the critics present their arguments in religious terms. We explain the critics’ reliance on religion in their counterarguments in terms of their attempts to challenge the AKP’s claims to Islamic knowledge and authenticity. The following section examines the diversity of framings of this opposition and reveals that AKP framings are based much more on national and conservative than on merely religious discourses.
Defending Reproductive Rights: Counterframings of Abortion
The AKP’s attempts to ban abortion and to limit caesarean births generated a heated public debate. However, while the discussion of caesarean sections remained mostly limited to the medical sphere, health professionals, and several CS actors (defending women’s rights to make choices about their health [Bayün et al. 2014] and emphasizing the need for caesarean births, especially in cases where normal delivery is risky [Ovalı n.d.]), the AKP’s proposed ban on abortion was widely debated in public and drew heavy criticism. Therefore we focus on the debate about abortion in this section.
Opposition parties in Parliament, secular, and Muslim CS organizations, and even some AKP members, immediately reacted to the government’s attempts to limit or ban the right to abortion. Several domestic and international campaigns were organized to prevent the ban and support this right (see Kürtaj Yasaklanamazn.d.). It is important to note that the framing of the right to abortion mostly centered on issues of health, human rights, and feminist concerns. While the AKP members supporting the limitation of abortion often referred to religion—sometimes incorrectly by misinterpreting Islamic teachings regarding the possibilities of abortion—as a legitimization of their support of the right to life, they avoided the direct problematization of abortion in Islam per se. Indeed, in Islamic theological debates and practices, experts argue that the definition of the beginning of life has different interpretations, allowing a possibility for abortion in a span from 40 to 120 days of pregnancy.8
The discussion about when pregnancy can be terminated according to Islam was so prevalent that even secular parties like the main opposition party, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party; CHP), explicitly referred to Islamic debates to challenge the position of the AKP and its president. For example, a member of the CHP criticized Erdoğan for not having sufficient religious knowledge of reproductive rights in Islam, arguing that in Islamic historical practice, women have not been penalized for having abortions (İhsan Özkes, cited by Karabağlı 2012). Although this discussion refers to whether abortion is allowed in Islam rather than to when life begins, both types of actors employ examples from religious practices to make their case within a certain religious discourse. However, while the two parties use religious framing of abortion, they make very different arguments: the AKP uses religion in terms of the right to life, while the CHP uses religion to legitimize the right to choice. Religion is thus constructed in the political space for justification of different positions. Similarly, political actors, regardless of their ideological positions, use religious discourses and examples to support their arguments, although they might have generally avoided Islamic references in their political rhetoric. What is interesting in this example is that members of the CHP, a party known to be secular, use religious justifications to back up their arguments rather than develop a different perspective to oppose the AKP’s religious framing of the issue.
Interestingly, actors from the same political group and ideological orientation may have dissimilar, even opposing, positions. Differences in framing an issue among members of the same group can be explained through concepts of frame alignment and frame resonance. While frame alignment refers to the congruency of activities, interests, values, beliefs, and goals of a group or social movement and target constituencies, which results in the resonance of frames, Benford and Snow (2000, 619–22) explain why some frames resonate while others do not. Frame resonance depends on credibility and salience, where factors such as consistency between claims and empirical facts; centrality of frame interpretations to one’s beliefs, values, ideas, and personal experiences; and narrative fidelity or cultural resonance—that is, a common cultural background—all help determine whether or not frames resonate. Collectivities, such as political parties, then, should not be understood as homogeneous or static, since members of the same group can frame an issue differently by their beliefs and experiences. This might also be an asset for the group, since different frames can resonate with diverse constituencies that sympathize with the party.
An example of this difference among party members is Fatma Bostan Ünsal, a founding member of the AKP, who opposed her party’s position on abortion. Although she declared herself personally against abortion and favored the right to life, she also stressed that in Islam abortion was allowed until the 120th day of pregnancy (the seventeenth week), a rather late time frame for the procedure even by modern medical standards. Referring to this Islamic argument, Ünsal claimed that a ban on abortion was never the true intention of the party’s political or electoral program but was used only to divert attention from the Uludere killings.9 Furthermore, she stressed that banning abortion would seriously and negatively affect women because it would force them to have abortions under unsanitary and/or illegal conditions (Ünsal, cited by Tekerek 2012). Other female members of the AKP publicly opposed the ban on abortion since it could increase illegally performed abortions. However, while Ünsal framed the issue of abortion as a matter of Islamic law, the other female AKP members framed it in medical terms. AKP member of Parliament Nursuna Memecan stated: “I don’t think that banning abortion will bring any good, especially if it is banned completely. . . . Indeed it can result in harm. It does not wither away by being banned; a ban only pushes it into illegal and incompetent hands, which means hardship for women, whose lives will be endangered” (Memecan 2012). Although the framing of these AKP members was not necessarily pro-choice, they recognized illegal abortion as a health problem.
Moreover, some CS members castigated the AKP for wrongly referring to religion to legitimize the ban on abortion, condemning in particular its framing through the role of women as sacred mothers. According to this claim, it was not at all a religious but indeed a political issue. Beyza Bilgin (2012), a professor of Islamic studies, argued that the Islamic ulema agreed on the right to contraception and abortion until the forty-second day of pregnancy, when there is no soul in the human fetus and abortion could not be understood as termination of life or murder. Scholars like Bilgin held that abortion was also allowed in Islam in situations of rape, incest, and unwanted pregnancy where contraception had failed. A similar line of argument was also presented by secular activists, such as Pınar İlkkaracan, founder of the activist organization Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR).10 İlkkaracan claimed that the AKP’s interpretations of religion to support the ban on abortion could not be based on Islam (Akarsu-Çelik 2012a) and that Erdoğan’s legitimization of the abortion ban stemmed from nationalist rather than religious discourse. İlkkaracan presented examples of the Sunni Islamic school of Hanefism, which allows abortion until the 120th day of pregnancy. Policies regarding both headscarves and abortion, she further argued, aimed to control women’s bodies and should be understood as a means for control over political space. For her, both practices resulted from authoritarian politics based on conservative and nationalist discourses rather than on strictly Islamic teachings.
Some women in the Islamic CS also expressed their opposition to the AKP’s abortion policies. Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal, a theology scholar and representative of the Başkent Kadın Platformu (Capital City Women’s Platform), personally opposed abortion but voiced her concern over how Erdoğan problematized it. Islamic scholars, Tuksal argued, broadly agree on at least when life starts: although the fetus is a physical entity independent of the mother, the soul enters it only later in the process of development, so abortion can be allowed up until the 120th day (Tuksal 2012).
Tuksal also argued that the government policies were contradictory; the abolishment of the Ana Çocuk Sağlığı Aile Planlaması Merkezleri (Centers for Mother-Child Health and Family Planning; AÇSAP), which had provided contraceptives to women, effectively left no family planning options available to them. Women had to resort to abortion or other methods of pregnancy termination, which endangered them. Furthermore, Tuksal rejected the widespread reference to women as “sacred mothers,” arguing that maternity is only one of a woman’s many capacities and identities.
Feminist activists such as Hidayet Tuksal, Pınar İlkkaracan, and Hülya Gülbahar (a renowned lawyer and activist for human and women’s rights) also criticized the Diyanet’s participation in the abortion debate. Tuksal (2012), for example, criticized the Diyanet’s interference, noting that “not everybody is Muslim” in Turkey. Instead, she argued, we should analyze why women do not want to give birth. As İştar Gözaydın (2014, 17) points out, “The state makes use of the Diyanet as an administrative tool to indoctrinate and propagate official ideology regarding Islam,” resulting in differing policies over time. Arguing that the Diyanet is misused by all governments, Pınar İlkkaracan gives the example of older publications of the Diyanet, which state that Sunni Islam allows abortion until the third month of pregnancy (cited in Akarsu-Çelik 2012b). Similarly, Hülya Gülbahar provides the example of the Diyanet’s fatwa from 1983, which stated that the Law on Population Planning from 1983 was in accordance with religious teachings (cited in Arman 2012). Gülbahar, comparing this radical conservative stance on abortion with that of Orthodox Christianity and Judaism, claims that Islam does not have such a strict conservative stance. The government’s interpretation of religion, she argues, is more strict and conservative than the Islamic practice itself. Similarly, İştar Gözaydın (2013) calls AKP conservatism a process of “evangelization” along the lines of American Protestantism and an example of biopolitics that tries to make abortion a social controversy.
The countervoices discussed above frame the issue of abortion as a health and human rights issue and as a women’s rights issue. These counterarguments claim that abortion was made into a political issue and that banning abortion is actually about controlling women’s bodies, manifesting the state’s attempts to regulate even the most intimate aspects of social life. Given the AKP’s Islamist roots, it may not be surprising that its leaders often invoke religion when discussing abortion. However, our research reveals that those who oppose AKP policies, regardless of their ideological positions, also largely use religious arguments and present examples from Islam to frame abortion and to support their arguments. However, they give divergent and even contrasting arguments about the Islamic perspective on the issue. In this case, it is clear that religious discourses are not static but are constantly constructed and reinterpreted in the sociopolitical space and often selectively employed to legitimize particular political views.
This study showed how in the framing and discussion of the issues of abortion and caesarean birth, religion is used to strengthen the contrasting arguments of ideologically different governmental and civil society actors. Our discussion also revealed how these actors do not necessarily present a homogeneous position when it comes to interpreting the same policy issue from a religious perspective. This variation might stem from the fact that religion becomes a part of such controversies precisely because there are different interpretations of religious texts and historical practice concerning certain topics (e.g., the use of headscarves or the practice of abortion in Islam). However, it becomes even more controversial when political actors refer to religion selectively for a political cause and try to establish a hegemony over religious interpretation. Used as a reference in attempts to strengthen dominant interpretations of a particular political issue, religion functions as “‘terrain of meaning,’ subject to radically different interpretations and conflicts, often with profound social and political implications” (Haynes 2011, 21).
Our analysis of the framings and discourses about abortion and caesarean birth also shows how religion and religious institutions are instrumentalized and (ab)used in politics, especially by dominant actors. The Diyanet’s controversial statements about abortion in the 1980s and in 2012 are clear examples of how the same institution can produce opposing interpretations of Islam and how a state actor becomes an instrument of the government. Similarly, conservative actors often refer to selective religious interpretations and frame policies related to women’s reproductive rights as strengthening the family, emphasizing women’s role as mothers to increase the population and improve the national economy. Such discourses and frames help further certain biopolitics, especially those relating to nationalist and economic developmental objectives. Thus an analysis that focuses on these discourses allows us to see the complex interaction of interests and aims beyond such religious references.
Furthermore, analyzing how different actors frame a particular issue regardless of their ideological positions or identities reveals a complex picture that cannot be explained by the framework of the Islamic versus secular divide. Such an analysis discloses different meanings that actors attribute to such concepts as religion, nation, and the role and identity of women. Our analysis shows that in the cases of reproductive policies, depending on historical and contextual factors, actors can frame these issues as Islam condemning abortion versus Islam allowing abortion; pronatalism versus the state’s interest; women’s health versus the fetus’s right to life; a woman’s right to choose versus the state’s intervention on behalf of the unborn baby; and so on. Debates on policies affecting women’s lives, as in the case of abortion and caesarean birth, are often part of power struggles that claim to act in the name of national and economic interest. Thus, while in early Turkish republican history reproductive rights were limited, they were expanded in the 1960s in response to the changing political context. Yet in the early twenty-first century, they are once more being curtailed for the sake of “national interest.” Although the extant literature on reproductive policies has examined how various political actors adopted different discourses on these policies, the phenomenon of members of the same collectivity adopting diverse and even conflicting frames has remained understudied. This study fills this gap.
Finally, this study shows how the specific framing of reproductive policies becomes the means to achieve larger political ends, such as preserving the nation and culture or economic development, and can be instrumentalized in various ways. In this sense this work contributes to the feminist scholarship on the biopolitics of reproduction by showing the diverse and sometimes controversial frames of the same policy issue (i.e., abortion) by a group of ideologically similar actors. Our analysis shows how a conservative political party, the AKP, with ambitions for economic development and national strength, has targeted women’s bodies and reproduction once again to promote population growth and to deepen its control over the population. As the AKP dominates the terms of the debate, there is limited room for alternative perspectives and a counterhegemonic agenda. Yet, even in this limited space, counter-voices to such policies still emerge, showing that the power to define reproduction is seldom unidirectional.
The present work benefited from funding and formal support from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK). We would also like to thank Sabancı University for its support and the three anonymous reviewers for their meticulous reading and for their guidance and suggestions.
1. As a result of Turkey’s modernization process, religious symbols were considered by the Kemalist ruling elite as signs of backwardness that threatened the Republic. Consequently, various policy attempts were made throughout history to discourage the use of headscarves in public (see Frank 2014).
2. Uludere, also known as Roboski by Kurds, is a village in southeastern Turkey where in 2011 the Turkish Army bombarded and killed thirty-four civilians who were smuggling oil across the border between Turkey and Iraq. The government described the loss of life as collateral damage in the so-called war on Kurdish terror (Yağmur 2011).
3. Turkey’s Kurdish issue, although dating back to the late Ottoman and early republican era, took its current form with the emergence of the PKK as an armed group in the 1980s. Most Kurds feel that the Republic has historically treated them as secondary citizens and not granted them equal rights. The conflict also has various social, economic, and political dimensions (Çelik 2009).
4. In Islam the fetus is understood to become a living human being when Allah breathes a soul into it. Until then abortion might be allowed. But the period of permissible abortion varies. Hanafi and Zaydi schools agree on 120 days, the Hanbali on 40 days. Shafiʾi scholars differ in their interpretation between 40 and 80 days, while the Maliki school mostly forbids abortion. These figures are based on interpretations of the twenty-third (al-Muminun) and thirty-second (al-Sajadah) suras of the Quran, which explain how God created man and describe the stages of fetal development that precede the acquisition of a soul. The Hanafi school has been prevalent in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey (Bowen 2003, 55–56; Bowen cited in Miller 2007, 358).
5. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a rate of caesarean birth of no more than 15 percent (Sert 2012).
6. Erdoğan cites a medical argument that women who give birth by caesarean section cannot have more than three children, even though many medical interpretations oppose this view.
7. ANAP’s chairman Turgut Özal was a member of the Nakşibendi religious order. The party was not explicitly Islamic but practiced politics of conservatism, sympathizing also with Islam. Similarly, AKP defines itself as conservative and not Islamic.
8. See n. 4.
9. Kurtuluş Korkman (2016, 114–17) warns against interpreting Erdoğan’s comments regarding gender, sexuality, reproduction, and family as “agenda-shifting” tactics or distractions from “real politics,” because this implies that issues pertaining to gender and sexual minorities are not part of real politics. Indeed, “family policies” (in the AKP’s vocabulary) are at the core of the conservative government and President Erdoğan’s hegemonic position and masculinist understanding of politics. The artificial separation between “real” politics and the politics of intimacy thus obscures the centrality of gender to producing and maintaining economic and political rule.
10. The WWHR’s gendered perspective played an important role in the reforms of the Civil and Penal Codes.