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  • Women’s Bodies, Demography, and Public Health: Abortion Policy and Perspectives in the Ottoman Empire of the Nineteenth Century
  • Tuba Demirci (bio) and Selçuk Akşin Somel (bio)

According to Michel Foucault, discipline in modern times means “a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior.” He argued that discipline is a technique of political domination intended to make the human body useful and efficient while subjecting it to docility. The increasing state power in western Europe, accompanied as it was by capitalist development and the industrial revolution, produced a complex web of new scientific knowledge of the human body utilized for the subordination of the latter. The army, schools, hospitals, factories, and prisons became the primary loci for the application of this technique of subordination. A crucial outcome of the expansion of the discipline was the creation of individuals from the scattered and amorphous useless masses, as Foucault characterized premodern subjects.1 Foucault’s framework could be applied in a qualified way to the late Ottoman period in the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire experienced neither an industrial revolution nor a bourgeois political take-over. However, like Prussia, Russia, and Japan in the same era, Ottoman bureaucracy promoted authoritarian state-directed modernization from [End Page 377] above, which led to the increasing militarization and disciplining of the male population.2

This article aims to elaborate on the issue of abortion during the period of Ottoman modernization by examining the attempts of the central authority to exert control over women’s bodies as a part of demographic policies as well as in the context of the difficulties in overcoming traditional Islamic law, which considered family life as an inviolable private sphere. It investigates the legal, medical, and ideological measures to curb abortion by analyzing the popular advice literature that came to shape the consciousness of the urban middle classes. This article argues that while Islamic law provided a relatively free sphere for women to control their bodies, state modernization in the nineteenth century meant the effective curtailment of this freedom, accompanied by a new discourse of reproduction and progeny, a clear indication of the emerging disciplinary function of the reformist Ottoman state.3

This discipline engaged the female population in unique ways. The ruling elite strongly believed in the necessity of demographic policies as a means of strengthening the military and economic potential of the empire. Public health became a major issue, and abortion was perceived as a serious threat to the political future of the Ottoman state. Legal, judicial, administrative, medical, pharmaceutical, propagandistic, and educational policies were adopted to prevent abortion and promote maternity. For the first time policies were developed that took the female population into consideration, and the female body acquired new importance as the prevention of abortion and safe childbirth became crucial, as the promotion of maternity entered into the state agenda, and as women gained new official respect as mothers. Indeed, women were considered for the first time as individuals under Ottoman law. A major obstacle to these new policies proved to be Islamic law, which considered conjugal issues an inviolable realm, sheltered women from disciplinary interventions, and tended to preserve women as an amorphous and unacknowledged adjunct to the family. [End Page 378]

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Figure 1.

A woman giving birth with the assistance of midwives. From the Kitab al-Cerrahiyet al-Haniye (Royal Book of Surgery) by Sherefeddin Sabuncuoglu, written in 1465. Reprinted in Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu: Cerrahiyet al-Haniye, ed. Ilter Uzel, 2 vols. (Ankara: Atatürk Kültür, Dil ve Tarih Yüksek Kurumu Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayinlari, 1992), 2:112A.

The history of abortion in the Ottoman Empire is largely unknown.4 This is in part because historical studies focused on sexuality and gender are still a relatively new phenomenon, particularly so for the Ottoman realm. In addition, and more specific to Ottoman studies, is that primary sources such as fatwa collections (collections of Islamic legal opinions, called fetva mecmuaları in Turkish) and Islamic court records (şer˓iyye sicilleri), while promising vast amounts of materials for social history, have attracted the attention of...


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pp. 377-420
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