Thousands of Turkish women march to Taksim Square during a protest against plans to reduce the time limit for abortions.

Story highlights

Last month Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called abortion "murder"

He has said Turkish women should bear at least three children

Protesters carried signs including "Murder is outlawing abortion"

Istanbul, Turkey CNN  — 

Hundreds of women gathered on Sunday in Istanbul in the latest demonstration against the religiously conservative ruling party’s plans to restrict access to abortion.

Last month Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan catapulted the issue to forefront of public debate in Turkey when he called abortion “murder.”

A day later, he amplified the controversy by equating a botched military operation in Uludere with abortion. The Uludere massacre claimed the lives of 34 Kurds in southeastern Turkey when faulty intelligence led to an airstrike on a group of smugglers crossing the Turkish- Iraqi border.

After Erdogan’s comment, Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag issued a statement indicating that he would be submitting a proposal to lawmakers in the upcoming month, raising fears that the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was preparing to introduce legislation to curb, if not fully block, access to abortion.

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The protesters who convened Sunday marched to Istanbul’s busy Taksim Square, carrying signs that read “AKP: Get your hands off my body,” “Murder is outlawing abortion,” and “Abortion is a right. Uludere is a massacre.”

Many protesters believe that Erdogan is playing to his base of culturally conservative voters, a strategy in line with his views as a pious Muslim as well as one that protestors see as an attempt to divert attention from the operation in Uludere.

“The prime minster is conservative. He does have Islamist sensibilities as well as his party, obviously, so he is trying to impose his understanding of faith and what Islam demands and so on to the rest of the population,” said Binnaz Toprak, an opposition party Parliamentarian attending Sunday’s march. “But at the same time I also feel that this is a cover-up for the Uludere massacre.”

Abortion up until the 10th week of pregnancy was legalized in Turkey in 1983 and has rarely, if ever, inspired much public debate in the three decades since. Public support today also seems to remain high, with a poll commissioned by Turkish newspaper Haberturk indicating that 55.5% of Turks do not support a ban on abortion.

Experts warn that restricted access does not decrease the abortion rate but drives the procedure underground, creating a black market that threatens maternal health and more adversely affects poorer women who do not have access to safe abortions abroad. Turkey has a 14.8% abortion rate compared to 18.9% in the United States, according to a 2011 United Nations Population Division study.

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Erdogan is seeking to restrict not only abortion but also births by caesarean section, a procedure whose growing popularity he has attributed to secret foreign plots to stall Turkey’s economic growth.

Turkey’s incidence of births by caesarean section – more than 45% in 2011, according to the Turkish Health Ministry – is much higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended rate.

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Erdogan’s worries about declining birth rates may be unfounded. Turkey, in comparison to its European neighbors, does not face population decline, with a projected population growth rate of 1.14% compared with Europe’s 0.11%, according to the United Nations.

“It is about having more people in Turkey. To have more workers to work and then during war, they need more soldiers,” said Nacide Berber, a member of the Feminist Collective at Sunday’s protest.

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Erdogan, a social and religious conservative, has outraged feminists in Turkey in the past by insisting that women bear at least three children to ensure a young population to keep Turkey’s economy strong. Then, while on a trip to Kazakhstan, he urged women to have five children.

“Actually, you know, it’s not a shock for us, for women. One year ago Erdogan told us to raise three babies and then five babies and now he wants us to have babies all the time,” said Berber.