On May 30, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks recommending restraint on the usage of birth control angered yet again women’s rights activists around the country. In an address he gave to the Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey in Istanbul, President Erdogan stated, “I am saying this clearly: We will increase our posterity and reproduce generations. As for population planning or birth control, no Muslim family can engage in such a mentality. We will follow the road that my God and blessed Prophet [Muhammad] say.”
Opposition party leaders, health associations and activists released statements of disapproval soon after the president’s remarks. Ozgur Ozel, the deputy parliamentary leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), denounced Erdogan’s comments relating to women’s bodies. CHP spokesperson Selin Sayek Boke accused the government’s regime of denigrating women. “We don’t commit to who makes how many children, but to a good future to children who come to the world,” she said. The Turkish Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology emphasized in a statement that reproductive rights are “the most natural right of women in Turkey, which is a democratic country.” Moreover, they pointed to illegal abortions and under-the-counter methods as negative consequences of abandoning birth control. Along similar lines, Turkish Women’s Union head Sema Kendirci expressed her discontent of the president’s usage of religious references, and further objected, “Who on earth could have the right to pressure families into having more children than they can provide for?”
On the other hand, there were those who stood in Erdogan’s defense while reaffirming freedom of individuals in their decisions. Health Minister Recep Akdag spoke to NTV television, “Our esteemed president is indicating the right concepts in reference to our people’s health. … [The] president’s statements are suitable for our society, culture and belief.” Akdag reaffirmed Turkey’s risk of speedy ageing, but clarified, “No one should be said or forced to give birth or not.” Similarly, Dr. Fatma Zehra Gunes from the Women’s Rights Organization Against Discrimination, known for being close to the government, said on BBC Turkey that statements from highly ranked politicians are being evaluated within society, after which individuals make their own decisions.
This is not the first time that Erdogan voiced his opinion on birth control, calling it “treason” in the past, while he also described abortion as “murder.” Since 2008, he has been urging women to have at least three children, so his remarks should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the governing Justice and Development Party's pronatalist agenda. In that light, in January 2015 then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the new Program for the Protection of the Family and Dynamic Population Structure. “Protection of the young population is not an ethic, but a strategic goal for us,” he stated at the time, while also announcing new measures for encouraging women’s employment. New reports show that Turkey has paid more than 450 million Turkish liras ($155 million) since May 2015 as part of a government program to encourage women to have more children.
The economic side of the government’s pronatalist agenda has remained the same as it has been repeated numerous times that an increase in population secures more economic growth. Consequently, academics like Zeynep Korkman suggested, “The contemporary politics of intimacy in Turkey seeks to regulate the realms of sexuality and reproduction in line with the intersecting rationales of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.”
Another probable yet less publicized rationale for encouraging more children could be more security oriented. As David Goldman, author of “How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too),” observes, “When he talks about Turkey’s failing demographics … Erdogan is speaking from the heart.” Goldman sheds light on the Kurdish population’s greater fertility, as they have one of the world’s highest birth rates that reflects within Turkey, too. In 2015, among the provinces having the highest total fertility rates, most had a majority Kurdish population, like Sirnak with 4.01 children per female, Agri 3.80 and Siirt 3.55; while the lowest rates were in provinces in the north and northwest of the country, like Edirne and Canakkale 1.53, and Kirklareli 1.54. Moreover, the trend that women marry less and marry older, which results in lower fertility, continues. Hence, Erdogan wishes for the ruling government to reverse trends that seem difficult to stop, as poverty remains the biggest obstacle in the way of efforts to increase the birth rate. Birth statistics from 2015 show total fertility rate was 2.14 children, while it was similarly 2.18 in 2014.
Feminists and secularists will continue to be unnerved by Erdogan’s comments whenever he restates his already known stance on the topic. Yet some Islamic feminists like theologian Hidayet Sevkatli Tuksal suggest that those who get alarmed by birth control rhetoric don’t know the Islamic camp that well. Tuksal stated in last year’s interview for daily Hurriyet, “Everyone is using birth control, hence the number of kids remains static. In the Islamic camp, if women didn’t use birth control, we would all have had 10 kids by now. So what are we talking about? There is abortion in the Islamic camp, cesarean, birth control — there is everything.”
This time, the debate took several additional turns, notably whether the president’s words signal some future legal undertakings that might prohibit abortion or his usage of religious references, particularly for private matters. No new legal steps are to be undertaken, and Erdogan’s policy in this regard remains conservative, but it may not be Islamist. According to Diyanet, Turkey’s highest religious authority, as explained in the Ilmihal guidebook for Islamic daily practice, it was agreed in 1988 that under Islamic law one may voluntarily plan parenthood before pregnancy if both spouses agree.
And while he is a savvy politician who is aware of the impact of religious referencing to practicing Muslims in Turkey, it would be better if the president refrained from arguments that are both incorrect under Islamic law and don’t resonate with the entirety of citizens in the country.