ANKARA, Turkey -- Thousands of demonstrators on Sunday staged the largest protest yet against plans by Turkey's Islamic-rooted government to curb abortion, which critics say will amount to a virtual ban.
Around 3,000 women – their ages ranging from 20 to 60 years old – gathered at a square in Istanbul's Kadikoy district. Some carried banners that read "my body, my choice" and shouted anti-government slogans.
Many of the women were accompanied by husbands and boyfriends. One young protester – her left fist clenched aloft – carried a placard that read "State, take your hands off my body," while a man waved a slogan reading "My darling's body, my darling's choice."
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called abortion "murder," and his government is reportedly working on legislation to ban the operation after 4 weeks from conception, except in emergencies.
Fusun Sirkeci, a London-based obstetrician and gynecologist, said in an email Saturday that most women don't learn they are pregnant until after 4 weeks and it is also difficult to establish the placement of the pregnancy sac during that period.
Abortion is presently legal in Turkey up to 10 weeks from conception.
"They say it is my body, my choice. Feminists say this," Erdogan said Saturday during a rally in the country's southeast. "No one has the right to abort a fetus in a body."
Analysts say Erdogan is pursuing a delicate strategy of beefing up Turkey's regional power with a large population, while trying to balance the country's demographics in the face of a high birth rate among the country's Kurds, a source of concern for Turkey since it is engaged in a bitter fight against Kurdish rebels who want autonomy in the largely Kurdish southeast.
Remarks by members of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, however, have also revealed deep-rooted moral and religious concerns.
Health Minister Recep Akdag caused an outcry Thursday when he told reporters that if necessary the government would even look after the babies of "rape victims." Facing criticism, he said Saturday that he did not mean rape victims can never have an abortion.
Deniz Ulke Aribogan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University, wrote in Aksam newspaper Friday that the government was seeking to use abortion to balance the Kurds' high birth rate, since "ethnic reproduction is used by some organizations as a political tool" – an apparent reference to the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, that is fighting for autonomy, and a pro-Kurdish political party also demanding the same.
"The problem is the rapid rise of population in eastern regions, while it has almost came to a standstill in western regions," Aribogan wrote, adding that the decision had been taken for political reasons, rather than out of moral or religious concern.
The largely Kurdish southeast has the highest birth rate in Turkey with 27.3 births in every 1,000, compared to 11,4 births in the northwest, according to the latest available figures in 2010 by the Turkish Statistical Institute. More than 25 percent of Turkey's nearly 75 million population is under the age of 14, according to a December survey.
Tino Sanandaji, a post-doctoral fellow at Chicago University who researches demographic change and its link to policy, said in an email Saturday that in the long run the higher Kurdish growth rate is certain to have social and political implications, although the process is "quite slow" for now.
"If it continues for four to five decades, however, the balance of power could start shifting, which is what seems to concern Turkish nationalists," he said.
Sirkeci warned in her email of the dangers of a virtual ban saying it will force "some women to terminate themselves which could potentially be fatal or disabling."
Sirkeci said any ban would also create an illegal market for abortions, and have a huge psychological impact on women.
"I feel the danger is very obvious," she said.