Mie Nakachi looks at how the war against Ukraine has affected the Russian government’s abortion policy and recalls Soviet initiatives in reproductive policy, which repeatedly failed to achieve the desired goals.
In July 2023, at plenary sessions of the Duma, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko announced the ministry’s plan to introduce strict control over the circulation of abortion medication and to discuss the prohibition of abortion at private medical facilities. He also criticized women for putting off childbirth to complete their education and achieve economic security, calling it a “misguided practice.”
He argued that this leads to such reproductive problems as infertility and miscarriages, and gives women little chance to raise large families. According to Murashko, women should understand that the earlier they start childbearing, the better for the baby, the mother and even for the mother’s career. He suggested that schoolgirls be taught the importance of early childbearing.
On numerous occasions in post-Soviet Russia, conservative politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) have called for anti-abortion measures and the return of traditional gender roles. However, medical experts have defended accessible abortions, and no health minister has previously argued that women should prioritize childbirth over education in order to raise the birthrate. Thus, the statement by Murashko, a gynecologist-obstetrician by training, caused outrage.
A brief history
Russia has had a progressive abortion policy since the early 20th century. After the Revolution, the Bolshevik government repressed the Orthodox Church and legalized abortion in 1920, making the Soviet Union the first country in the world to legalize abortion on the request of a woman.
Between 1936 and 1955 abortion was criminalized. However, at the initiative of Health Minister Maria Kovrigina, who pushed for women’s right to abortion, abortion was re-legalized in 1955. Ever since, abortion has remained legal, in the Soviet Union and then in post-Soviet Russia.
During the Soviet period, due to the “planned” shortage of effective modern contraceptives, abortion was the only available and reliable method of fertility control. As a result, women wishing to manage their reproductive lives often had to go through multiple curettage operations, usually without anesthesia.
However, in post-Soviet Russia, modern contraceptives, such as hormonal pills, became widely available, and their use has gradually become common among younger generations of women. Consequently, the number of abortions has been declining steadily in recent years.
Reproductive policy under Putin
It was not long after Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia in 2000 that his government began introducing regulations on abortions. There are two main drivers. The first is the shrinking population. Between the late 1980s and 2000, the birthrate plummeted at the same time that mortality among men rose, resulting in negative population growth for the first time in peacetime Russia. In this context, easy access to abortions was viewed as a factor depressing the birthrate.
The second driver was the reemergence of the ROC after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its promotion of traditional family values. In particular, it lobbied for a restriction or ban on abortions.
However, until recently state regulations on abortion have been limited to the areas of advertisement and education. For example, in 2007, a Health Ministry decree recommended that all women considering an abortion receive information from medical personnel about possible complications and side effects of the operation and then sign an agreement. The so-called “quiet week” introduced in 2011 required that a woman requesting an abortion wait a week before she could undergo the operation. Yet in that same year, the federal law “On the Basics of Protecting the Health of the Citizens of the Russian Federation” clearly stated that “every woman independently decides the question of motherhood.” In 2014, all advertisements for abortion services were banned. Still, abortion remained widely available.
The Russian government, meanwhile, has worked closely with the Church on promoting traditional family values and abortion-prevention campaigns. In 2008, President Dmitri Medvedev established a new state award for “parental glory” to promote responsible parenting and large families. In the same year, his wife Svetlana Medvedeva created the Socio-Cultural Fund, which conducted abortion-prevention campaigns and sought to promote traditional family values together with the ROC. The ROC actively supported the 2013 “gay propaganda law“ and the 2017 decriminalization of domestic violence as a way of defending heterosexual patriarchal families.
Reproductive policy after the invasion of Ukraine
Russia’s war on Ukraine has shifted the balance of influence between medical opinion and the ROC on the government’s approach toward abortion.
First, the war has significantly worsened Russia’s demography and demographic prospects. By a very conservative estimate, Russia has already lost at least 30,000 men killed in Ukraine. In addition, close to one million have left Russia since the beginning of the war, many of them young, educated and skilled men anxious to avoid mobilization.
In the early stages, the war might not have affected the lives of most Russians, but the “partial” mobilization in September 2022, the extension of the draft age from 18-27 to 18-30 in July, and the increasing number of drone strikes on Russian territory have touched ever greater numbers, especially young adults, with the finger of fear.
Secondly, a war to revive Russia’s imperial status increased the importance of promoting “traditional values.” The presidential decree of November 9, 2022, aims at “preserving and strengthening” traditional spiritual and moral values in all spheres of life, and the ROC is anxious to expand its role as part of such an effort.
The Church has never been in a better position to push through its agenda to restrict abortion. In May 2022, Patriarch Kirill stated that abortion at private clinics should be banned and that it should be removed from health insurance coverage. Unlike his predecessor six years earlier, Health Minister Murashko responded favorably to the ROC proposal.
What do members of the medical community think?
The collective opinion of the medical community will soon become clear, as the professional association of gynecologists and obstetricians is scheduled to meet at the end of September with Murashko’s proposals on the agenda. The available information so far suggests that Russia’s medical community is against significant restrictions on abortion. According to a survey of medical personnel conducted by Medvestnik at the end of July 2023, less than 7% of respondents supported a ban on abortion performed by private doctors or restrictions on the sale of abortion pills. Almost 80% were firmly against Murashko’s proposed measures.
In addition, Academician Vladimir Serov, who heads up the Russian Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, stated that he personally considered any type of restriction on abortion a mistake that would only result in a rise in criminal abortions and maternal mortality, primarily affecting young, inexperienced women. Nor would such a ban impact the birthrate. To him, aggressive rhetoric used to restrict access to abortion does not make sense, as the number of abortions has significantly declined in Russia in recent years.
Heading toward restrictive policy – again
Historically, politicians have penalized women for demographic problems and justified prohibitive policies in the name of strengthening the nation. However, such efforts have never produced positive results. In the mid-1930s, when significant population losses and birthrate declines became apparent, abortions were blamed for this negative trend rather than Stalin’s collectivization and the subsequent Great Famine (known as the Holodomor in Ukraine). Consequently, abortion was criminalized, but the birthrate went up only slightly and briefly, while criminal abortions became rampant, causing high rates of maternal mortality.
After the loss of more than 27 million, predominantly male, lives in World War II, Nikita Khrushchev, then-chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, proposed a pronatalist 1944 family law that aimed at encouraging men to have extramarital sex, thereby increasing the number of out-of-wedlock children.
Ironically, that legislation not only increased the number of abortions but also exacerbated the suffering of tens of millions of single mothers and out-of-wedlock children: after creating a category of legally “fatherless” children, the state failed to provide sufficient material or moral support for them.
In both cases, policymakers looked at women as a reproductive instrument for increasing the population, without taking into account the long-term wellbeing of children, mothers and the family. In both cases, medical professionals resisted. In the former case, Health Minister Grigory Kaminsky submitted an extensive list of medical conditions to qualify for legal abortions in order to secure wider access to safe abortion. This irritated Stalin, the list was curtailed significantly, and shortly afterward Kaminsky was named an enemy of the people and shot.
In 1944, the Health Ministry advised against Khrushchev’s proposal to introduce imprisonment as a punishment for women undergoing criminal abortion. This amendment was accepted, but the Ministry’s other proposal, to allow out-of-wedlock children to register the name of the father in their birth certificates, was not. In both cases, the rejection of the medical recommendation undermined the political goal of increasing the birthrate.
In addition, on August 3, the local governor announced new fines for “coercing” women into undergoing abortions, making Mordovia the first region to initiate such penalties. This development was fully supported by Mordovia’s Orthodox Metropolitan Zinovii.
Other regions do not look set to follow this example. For instance, the parliament of Sverdlovsk Region voted against banning abortion, arguing that the Soviet experience demonstrated that bans lead to criminal abortions and maternal deaths. On August 5, a feminist organization called A Woman Can! based in Chelyabinsk organized a political action against abortion restrictions in the city center and on social media, claiming that the Soviet experience shows that banning abortion will lead to infanticides.
As the Ukraine war drags on and threatens ever greater numbers of men with separation from their families or worse, both the possibility and desire for reproduction are being curtailed. The government’s plans to make abortions harder to obtain will certainly backfire, as a similar policy did after 1936. If current medical opinion and historical memories are ignored, Russia is bound to repeat its past mistakes, with women paying the price.