The Right to Abortion in north Cyprus: Social-cultural, religious and legal aspects

In the northern part of the island, women’s abortion right has been discussed and came into attention of the media after several incidents that took place in past few years. Abortion was always seen as a taboo issue which has not been discussed in the public but was rather a “problem” to be solved by woman behind the doors. The politicians, doctors and public in general are not considering abortion as women’s reproductive right but through the right to life of fetus according to socio-cultural and religious aspects. The current laws allow women only to have abortion up to 10 weeks with the permission of the husband if the woman is married or with the allowance from her parents if she is below 18 years old. Although the current legal situation is very restrictive for women, according to recent experiences it is known that even this cannot be practiced in public hospitals. Women are often sent to private hospitals and being force to pay high prices which clearly shows the close relationship between patriarchy and capitalism.

The debate about abortion typically involves issues of philosophy, religion, ethnics, and feminism. When does life begin? Does a fetus have rights? Do women have the right to control their own reproductive functions? These issues are clearly important in determining one's position regarding the policies that regulate access to public abortion.

In northern part of the island, women do not have much information about their reproductive rights. The patriarchal control over women’s bodies does not only normalize masculine domination, but also reinforces the conservative male culture that prevents women to consider safe abortion as their human right. Most of the women, especially the young ones, are subject to judgmental criticisms when they wanted to have abortion and these judgmental attitudes, in turn, creates a big communal silence about the reproductive health of Turkish Cypriot women. Such a silence on reproductive rights and abortion, on one hand, force women to carry out all the physical and emotional burdens of unsafe abortions or force women to have abortion in private hospitals. On the other hand, it hardens the struggle against the hypocritical implementations of the governmental and private institutions.

In the northern part of Cyprus, although many young women start to experience their sexuality before marriage, premarital sex is still a taboo in Turkish Cypriot society. Related with the moral and religious codes that make premarital sex a taboo, the termination of pregnancy depends on women’s marital status and age. That is why, the great majority of young and single women choose to have abortion secretly in private hospitals –if economical force’s is enough to- which affect their psychological health. Accordingly, under the current laws, woman has to receive approval from her husband if she is married and if not, and that she is under 18, she has to have the consent of her parents. In addition, if she has mental disorder she has to receive approval from her parents or if not, 2 specialist doctors have to give the necessary approvals. Anyone who exceeds this time limit can be imprisoned for maximum 3 years under the law. In addition, there is also another article in the Criminal Code which says that if a woman allows a miscarriage intentionally by using for instance a poison or a specific material, then can have imprisonment up to 7 years.

Exceeding this time limit may cause a prosecution to be initiated against woman, as we have experienced last year in the north. A woman was prosecuted due to both making abortion while she was 16 weeks pregnant and allowing a miscarriage intentionally. There had been no similar cases in the court before and the result was very crucial. In the final hearing the woman was sentenced to 9 months’ imprisonment, a very symbolic date considering that it is the time period of pregnancy. Although this decision was later reversed in the Court of Appeal and her sentence was decreased to 3 months, she still spend 3 months as a “criminal” in the central prison. During the hearings at the Criminal Court, she accepted all the accusations against her and said that she learned this hospital from the research she made with her partner during that time. Her partner also admitted in the court, in another case that was related to this one, that he was the one paying the money for abortion. Although in the law it says that anyone who helps the woman for having an illegal abortion should also be prosecuted, no case was filed against her partner or the owners of the hospital.

Her lawyer defended her saying that she was under so much pressure, she had significant problems with her partner that time and she could bear the responsibility of being a single mother in this society. In addition, that after she made abortion she was also under so much pressure and people were calling her “murderer”. However, the judge called this crime as being very serious and grave. He further stated that it is important to give heavy sentences for the peace and safety of the society. Moreover, he also considered that she was not pregnant as a consequence of rape and that it is normal to have social pressure but that does not mean that we should not obey the laws due to the pressure. He also considered the education level of the defendant and her family. This case example was very important as it illustrated how patriarchal the prosecution and police works, as only the woman faced trial while the owners of the hospital and her ex-partner did not face any prosecution. Secondly, it also showed the general understanding of the Criminal Court that was not focusing on the woman but merely on patriarchal beliefs of the society and fetus.

Few days ago in Famagusta, a young woman left the baby after delivery. It is stated that the young women did not want the baby and informed social services department that about this. Media, news, comments through social media accused, judge young woman with irresponsibility. But nobody discuss the main reason behind this behavior. Due to the sex is a taboo in young ages for women, there is no information and education about contraceptive methods, no counseling, no free and public access to abortion services give rise to these kinds of issues. Women need to face with all conservative masculine dominated criticism and psychological health problems to overcome all those kind of judgements.

It has also been argued that an “embryo is in the woman’s body, it’s within her and can’t be separated from her, so it’s not just her decision-making about whether to bear a child, it’s about her body”; therefore it should not be subject to someone else’s consent. Arguments which held around “fetus is a baby” is mostly related with gender roles opposed to women, whole body is her own family’s and carry an embryo is a blessed duty which cannot be rejected otherwise women have seen equal to a killer. Also we must add that patriarchal system’s belief that claims women’s body for states is a tool to control population numbers for cheap workforce and more soldiers for military. These perspectives are directly linked with capitalism and militarism, working together with patriarchy.

Many people who oppose legal abortion or who only weakly support legal abortion will often focus their objections on the idea of "abortion on demand." They see something wrong with abortion being readily available. But if abortion is not available when women want it ("on demand"), what is the point of it being legal? If abortion is legal because women should be able to make autonomous decisions about what happens to their bodies, how can abortion not be made available when they demand it? The women are forced to make abortions in private hospitals and their demands to public hospitals are refused by various excuses and threats: displaying their names, claiming that there is inadequate equipment or the surgery room is not convenient.

The answer is that people who oppose abortion on demand oppose the idea that women can be trusted to make autonomous decisions about what happens to their own bodies, an attitude which can be traced directly back to traditional, patriarchal, religious attitudes towards religion. This is most clearly the case with anti-choice activists who don't hide the fact that they want the state to have the power to make decisions for women, but it's also true for weak abortion supporters.

Religious conservatives would like to place all sorts of restrictions on women’s ability to obtain abortions. They can’t ban abortion outright, but they can perhaps make abortion so difficult to manage that women will be less likely to choose it — thus making it a theoretical choice, but not a practical choice.

By considering all these different perspectives and the power that society tries to maintain over women’s body, Dayanışma recommends the following:

  • Abortion should be decriminalized and available like every other legitimate public health service.
  • It should be available at a woman’s request without any other form of consent/approval needed.
  • It should be personal decision not a legal debate.
  • The time limit for abortion should be increased as the current 10 weeks requirement is insufficient when it is also considered that the women are forced to demand it from private hospitals, they have to seek for the necessary consents in accordance with the law and collect a high amount of money in a very short period of time.
  • Abortion should be operated free of charge as a public health for every woman living in northern part of Cyprus including the immigrants and asylum seekers.