We cannot easily write off the politics of rights—both in the sense of concrete entitlements that the state extends to us, and in the sense of a tool that provides us with a common ground to stand upon, with a language to talk to the state as well as to other societal segments, with a discourse of empowerment, with a potential towards politicization—just for the sake of being “critical”.
Debates around abortion went on and off over the past decade in Turkey, and with the events that took place in Poland at the end of last year, it became a hot topic once more. The recent uproar in reaction to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, and Turkey and Poland’s doomed trajectories that look more and more alike seem to suggest that abortion will become an even more urgent topic for us in the near future. My intention in this piece is not to make a comparative analysis of Turkey and Poland, rather, to contribute to the discussion about how to form our arguments regarding abortion as feminists, and more specifically, to elaborate on why I find it meaningful as well as crucial to defend abortion as a right.
In Turkey, abortion used to be a topic that was seldom discussed, and only by feminists and healthcare workers, until 2012 when it hit the national spotlight with the then-prime-minister Erdoğan’s unexpected statement that he believes “abortion is murder.” Earlier attempts at drawing attention to the issue had remained futile amidst an always overwhelming social agenda; abortion had never been called to attention either before or after termination of pregnancies upon request was legalized in 1983. The reason why feminists and healthcare workers had been trying to draw attention to the issue prior to 2012 was because access to abortion services had become gradually more difficult over the 2000s, especially in public health institutions.[i] Established as a response to Erdoğan’s spurt in 2012, Abortion Is a Right, Decision Belongs to Women Platform (Kürtaj Haktır Karar Kadınların Platformu) that brought together over 40 women’s organizations and hundreds of independent women in Istanbul built its claims on this very notion: It is not enough to legalize abortion, what is legal on paper can always be rendered inaccessible in practise; the state shouldn’t just “tolerate” abortion but recognize it as a right and take concrete steps to ensure access. The platform’s reach expanded beyond Istanbul; through coordinated protests and circulation of materials, the struggle for abortion rights spread across Turkey.
This political position was also criticized, and discussed extensively back then, especially on media such as the web sites and publications of Socialist Feminist Collective and Amargi. While there is no need to go over this entire corpus here, the attention that Sedef Erkmen’s new book[ii] received shows the ongoing relevance of these discussions, which are far from being exhausted. Indeed, parts of the book covering “the discourse and political strategies for abortion in feminist politics” list arguments criticizing rights-based politics akin to the ones we’ve heard at the time. Within the current conjuncture, I find it essential that we continue thinking through these positions, both as they pertain to abortion specifically and to our means of doing feminist politics more generally. In this vein, I will touch upon certain parts of the said arguments as they are covered in Sedef Erkmen’s book, as I do think that this will provide a fruitful ground for this discussion. But I do not intend to write a book review or develop a critical argument targeting this particular book; instead, I aim to contribute to the discussion about our political means and strategies, which is a vital conversation in the current climate.
The first of the arguments reiterated in the book asserts that defending abortion rights provokes the opponents to defend foetus’ right to life and leaves us in a dead-end binary between the right to choose vs the right to life. Yet the book’s narrative does not show us any evidence that this argument, familiar to many from the abortion-related literature that focuses on the US, is any pertinent to the Turkish context. As a matter of fact, it took decades in the US for this binary to get formed and to attain its current predominance that we observe in such varied realms—from state laws and court decisions to political party agendas; from election flyers, statements of churches and NGOs to billboards and ads on the tv and online; from brochures in waiting rooms of health institutions to popular culture productions. There are groups united with the specific aim of promoting these arguments, that go out on the streets to protest, sue institutions and even assassinate healthcare workers. Whereas in Turkey, the argument around the foetus’ right to life does not go beyond some government spokespersons muttering about “unborn babies” every now and then, and it’s not quite clear that anybody actually buys into those weak pleas at all.[iii] Perhaps there are some who do, but no one who criticizes the concept of abortion rights ever presents us any evidence that that is in fact the case; they simply expect us to believe that an argument copied and pasted from a different context works just as well in our own case.[iv]
A second, and also familiar, argument against the abortion-rights frame—which in a way complements the previous one—is mentioned only once in passing in Sedef Erkmen’s book: The claim that the demand for abortion rights, precisely because of the women/foetus binary it supposedly entails, reproduces a liberal (in the sense of liberal-bourgeois legalist) discourse. Similar to the question of foetus’ rights, this argument is also drawn from the critical literature on rights that has been produced during the 1970s and 80s in the US. Indeed, during those years, in the face of social inequalities growing deeper, American progressive/leftist legal experts[v] were discussing why the achievements of the 1960s’ civil rights movements did not suffice to stop this trend. Some took the easy road and explained it away by claiming that rights are “liberal”, suggesting that they are mere paper tigers lacking any real potential to benefit the oppressed. During the past thirty years, this argument received enough criticism; counter arguments have been advanced from the perspectives of women’s, Black, intersectional, workers’, minority movements. It would be impossible for me to briefly summarize such an oeuvre within the confines of this short article, but it is difficult not to ask: Are the workers on strike for collective bargaining rights liberal or is demanding the right to education in mother tongue a liberal one? Why are women (especially feminists) so easily (and baselessly) accused of being liberal, when one would direct such accusations against any other political actor only after serious consideration? Another possible reading of this argument is that this accusation is not meant to be a general criticism towards the concept of rights, but a more specific one targeting “the right to choose” frame (which, again, is primarily relevant to the US context). Yet, the fact that those who mobilized around abortion rights in Turkey, both prior to and after 2012, carefully refrained from leaning on this frame makes this reading irrelevant. A third reading suggests that this argument evokes the notion that access to rights is never equal, that material inequities flaw access to rights, and that being a rights-bearing subject brings different outcomes for different segments of the society. While this is a solid argument to which nobody could object, the summary critique doesn’t offer any insight into why ditching the entire concept of rights because it’s “liberal” would be preferable to endeavouring to supplement abstract rights with concrete struggles and practises.
The third argument advanced in Sedef Erkmen’s book, which deserves to be elaborated on more deeply than the first two because of its greater relevance to the Turkish context asserts that rights claims confine us into the realm of the law, that they compel us to play a game whose rules are rigged against us from the outset, and that they thus cannot emancipate us. It is difficult not to—at least partially—agree with this criticism. The confinement of politics into the legal realm is a question that has been tackled in all feminist circles that I’ve been a part of ever since I became one, and bears relevance beyond these circles, for all social movements. Then again, admitting that the legal realm is indeed a treacherous one for emancipatory movements cannot lead to the conclusion that we need to completely withdraw from it; and I’m saying that for two reasons.
The first one, needless to say, is that practically speaking, we are all obligated to operate within the legal field. Even if we were to reject the legal framework, we would still be bound by it: We wouldn’t be exempt from being subjected to state’s laws as citizens. Furthermore, in the case of abortion specifically, the notion of practicality implies not only what is allowed and unallowed by law, but also the state’s responsibility to offer abortion services and making abortion accessible,[vi] and to speak of the state’s responsibilities towards the citizenry is possible and meaningful only within a legal framework. Considering the immense and violent attacks against our legal accomplishments in the past few years, it is essential not to abandon this territory, to protect any rights and legal entitlements that we possess, and to carry on the struggle to turn what is on paper into practise.
The second, and perhaps more important point, is that there is a deep flaw in this argument in that it—intentionally or unintentionally—equates law to the state. Thus reducing law to the sum of legislative and executive powers, of courts and written scripts; it glosses over the fact that law—also—operates as a social reality in our daily lives, outside these official realms. In order to expand our conceptual framework so that we can begin to discuss how legal struggles actually work and how we can turn them into tools that we can use to our advantage, we need to consider law not as an entity that merely “exists” in government institutions, but as “a complex repertoire of discursive strategies and symbolic frameworks that structure on going social intercourse and meaning-making activity among citizens.”[vii] As individuals or groups, we can mobilize certain elements of this repertoire in strategic ways to attain legitimacy, to gain material and discursive advantage over our opponents, and to build a support base. For example, we evoke rights (perhaps the most familiar element of this repertoire) not only in courts but also in daily interactions; different groups imbue rights with different, at times contradictory meanings; and the clashing of those contradictory meanings as to who has the right to what, be it in the court or on the streets, is the very way in which we negotiate the terms of citizenship. I find this bottom-up, constitutive conceptualization of law a lot more productive in exploring both the potentials and the constraints of rights claims.
Kürtaj Haktır campaign is a fitting example of this constitutive conceptualization: The name and the main slogan of the campaign, decided upon through days-long, exhausting discussions, illustrates the kind of process I’ve sketched out above. That is, the process of imbuing an abstract rights framework with meaning, enabling their claim to circulate among wider segments of society through the rights framework, thus preparing the grounds on which the movement could enlarge its support base as well as social legitimacy. Indeed, A closer look into the three main themes that emerge from those discussions suggest that the platform’s constituents were cognizant of this “movement building” potential of rights when they settled on this slogan: Firstly, a lot of women and organizations who would be reluctant towards more “radical” feminist claims could comfortably stand behind it,[viii] the rights framework thus allowed the campaign’s base to enlarge. Secondly, it was a common, accessible language and its relevance went beyond certain heavily politicized groups and communities; it resonated with almost all segments of society. Thirdly, in contrast to the discourses that depict abortion as a traumatic experience, ridden with guilt and shame, the rights framework offered an empowering language that underlined women’s agency over their own bodies, which the campaign sought to publicize.[ix]
In outlining these, I seek neither to argue that abortion politics can only be advanced through the framework of rights, nor to take a defensive stance about the Abortion Is a Right Platform, in which I was actively involved. My point, rather, is that we cannot easily write off the politics of rights—both in the sense of concrete entitlements that the state extends to us, and in the sense of a tool that provides us with a common ground to stand upon, with a language to talk to the state and to other societal segments, with a discourse of empowerment, with a potential towards politicization—just for the sake of being “critical”.
Surely, not every rights claim is going to achieve its goals in a linear, direct fashion all at once. At the end of the day, these struggles take place within a system where the cards are stacked against us from the start, failure is always a possibility. That being said, we are also not bound to fail: Just like in other spheres of social life, fates of rights struggles are determined by internal and external dynamics that cannot be foreseen, some of which we can only grasp after the fact. The literature on the topic identifies, alongside more context-specific variables; the organizational capabilities of the group advancing a rights claim, its capacity to broaden its base by forming alliances, and the social legitimacy and political leverage it musters as the factors that impact the direct and indirect outcomes of these movements. It is also worth noting that there are no objective criteria for assessing whether a rights claim “succeeded” or “failed”; characteristically, rights claims lead to open-ended and unforeseeable processes around whether the rights in question will be kept on paper or new ones will be gained, around the ways that those rights will be implemented, as well as to equally open-ended and unforeseeable contestations around their implementation.
I do not mean to argue that the correct strategy for all social movements under all circumstances is to allocate all its resources and energy to the legal sphere and to claiming rights; on the contrary, amassing power and manoeuvering capability in other areas is crucial for rights claims to achieve their ends. In turn, at times rights claims themselves can become a tool to achieve those capacities; a movement built around a rights claim can expand its organizational capabilities through other platforms which then brings about stronger political leverage. Sometimes, rights claims that seem “unsuccessful” can lead to indirect accomplishments over time: The claims that fell short of passing a new right into law or keeping an already existing one in the books may be revived to operate as a counter-hegemonic tool in another context at another time, and may prepare the ground for other accomplishments.[x] Considering how complex, messy, and unpredictable the field within which we lead those struggles, we can only hope for, and work towards two things: Firstly, to learn our lessons from past struggles and build on them when deciding our political strategies, without forgetting that these lessons will not simply repeat themselves under today’s conditions. Secondly, to assess our field as good as we can—that is, instead of assuming that things “here” work in the exact same way they do “there”, to observe the concrete conditions within which we act, and the outcomes that our own actions engender.[xi]
As I wrap up, I would like to touch upon one final argument from Sedef Erkmen’s book: her assertion that feminism should not “squeeze” abortion politics into politics of rights, and instead should create a position that prioritizes perspectives that “focus on life and support livable conditions of living (….), [that] reveal conditions of living, and thus remind us why abortion is a reality; point out the possibilities not only of not dying but also of living.” This position takes us back to the notion that abortion could not be a right, but is at most a need stemming from exigent circumstances: As though we wouldn’t need abortions were our living conditions better or were our financial and psychological means sufficient to bear (more) children.[xii] Yet, abortion is not “something” we need because the state doesn’t provide better conditions of living to us. The recognition of abortion as right in and of itself is a testament to the notion that women as a social group[xiii] are equal and independent subjects, have the licence to participate in the contestations and the struggles as equal and independent subjects about what constitutes livable conditions that can only take place among equal and independent subjects (politics, in a nutshell). In brief, we need abortion as a right in order to be able to inscribe our experiences, realities, desires, fears, dreams—basically, our lives—into politics in the manner that Sedef Erkmen seems to entreat. Just like the Istanbul Convention, which today we are defending literally for dear life, abortion as a right is indispensable for opening up the political sphere towards more productive and more hopeful politics.
Translator: Gülşah Mursaloğlu
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
[i] It is difficult to assess when exactly access to these services started to worsen. But it is fair to argue that Sağlıkta Değişim Programı [Transformation in Health] that started in 2004 under AKP rule played a role in it, and that there is a correlation between the inaccessibility of these services through the dissolution of preventative healthcare and performance-based salary schemes imposed on health workers.
[ii] Since I have limited access to publications in Turkey, I wasn’t able to read the book but I read the dissertation that the book is based on, available online. I therefore am not aware of any possible changes made to the manuscript in its transition into book format as I write this piece.
[iii] Indeed, just because a foetus-rights has not so far sparked doesn’t mean that it never will. In fact, anti-rights movements can and do spread across the world by taking inspiration from one another. However, were that to be the case, that is, were such movement to emerge in Turkey, it also would not be a mere replica of those that flourished elsewhere; it would be its own beast. Assessing the situation with its unique and concrete dynamics once a movement is actually there, and coming up with strategies after that assessment seems a much wiser route than abandoning the rights-based politics on a sheer assumption.
[iv] In my experience, what “sells” in Turkey is the “but it’s a sin” argument. Yet, the aforementioned criticism doesn’t quite fit this frame. Since the arguments of “it’s a right” and “but it’s a sin” do not even operate on the same register, together they do not form a binary to be trapped in.
[v] Here, I’m using “legal experts” in a wider sense to include academics working on jurisprudence, civil society organizations and activists alongside attorneys and judges.
[vi] What I mean by “the state’s responsibility to offer abortion services and making abortion accessible” is the positive responsibility the state has to assume—positive, in the sense that it is not a sheer absence (as in the case of NOT disallowing abortions) but an active role. That is, the legal guarantee that the state is indeed responsible for offering these services, that from personnel training to supplies logistics, it is the state’s duty to ensure that we have access it—so that we can move beyond a situation whereby only those who have the means, the networks, and the finances are able to get an abortion (let’s not forget, even in contexts where abortion is most strictly banned, people with the means, the networks, and the finances always find a way to procure one when needed). There is no other way than this positive responsibility frame for overcoming problems of unequal access and an ensuring that abortion rights exist not just on paper but in practice.
[vii] Indeed, I haven’t come up with this conceptual framework on my own, there’s an expansive academic literature on it (as far as I know most of them haven’t been translated into Turkish). For those interested, the quote is from McCann’s 1994 book (p. 282) and some other mind-opening examples can be found here and here.
[viii] Certainly, this does not necessarily mean that everyone accepted the slogan without any reservations; as I mentioned earlier there were those who approached the rights frame quite critically. Still, it was the phrase that received the largest consensus, compared to alternatives.
[ix] Obviously, there were other considerations behind the platform’s decisions regarding the frames it chose. For purposes of brevity here I am focusing more closely on the movement-building aspect, and not delving into the discussions that revolved around “The Decision Belons to Women” and “Free/Accessible/Safe Abortion”, which would have been imperative for an in-depth exploration of the concept of social and collective rights.
[x] After all the skirmish 2012, no change has ever been made to Law no 2827, that is, abortion remained a legal right. Some consider this an accomplishment of the abortion rights campaigns. Knowing that access to abortion has since become even more problematic, I refrain from making that assertion. To me the most considerable accomplishments of the Kürtaj Haktır Platform are visible in more indirect transformations that it stimulated: that it brought many and diverse women’s organizations, groups and feminists together (which seldom happened until 2012 save for the mass rallies of 8th of March and 25th of November); that the cooperation cultivated in the platform later paved the way for many other alliances (currently incarnated in Kadınlar Birlikte Güçlü [Women are Stronger Together]); and that we saw how its slogans attracted many women who were previously apolitical to participate in Gezi protests. Today, political commentors keep harping on about how “women are the only real force of opposition in Turkey and are the only group still taking to the streets”, but gloss over the history of this force being amassed: Surely, the abortion rights campaign is not the sole progenitor of the current feminist/women’s movement, but we came to where we are today through such stepping stones.
[xi] I conducted fieldwork between 2014-2015 regarding reproductive health practices; what I heard while interviewing health workers was not the abortion right/right to life binary, but a more complicated reckoning between women’s rights and patients’ rights. To put it briefly, the biggest fear that health workers at public institutions expressed was being sued for damages and have to pay large sums in compensation in case things went wrong during an abortion, while performing abortions itself was not lucrative. This quick risk/benefit analysis worked as a strong deterrent. In a way, this also presents somewhat of a conflict between two rights, but the inference I draw from this is not to abandon the politics of rights because it leads to conflicts, but to work towards crafting demands that would include health workers’ concerns alongside women’s needs.
[xii] This logic echoes the polemic around the statement “Women should give birth even if they don’t want to, the state will take care of the children,” to which the response shouldn’t be “No, you don’t take good care of children,” but “How dare you!”
[xiii] I don’t have any space left in this piece to elaborate on this point, but I do think that within the framework I presented here, the right to abortion is meaningful, even vital, for all women, regardless of their fertility status—but of course, is pointless if we consider abortion only a reality imposed on us by circumstances.