From Stalin to Putin, abortion has had a complicated history in Russia


They were banned under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin but commonplace under later Kremlin leaders. Now, after less than a century, official attitudes about abortion in Russia are changing once again.

Although abortion is still legal and widely available, new restrictions are being considered as President Vladimir Putin takes an increasingly socially conservative turn and seeks to reverse Russia's declining population.

Having embraced the Russian Orthodox Church, he is stressing "traditional family values" — often used as code words to differentiate his country from Western social attitudes toward LGBTQ+ rights and other policies.

Some see it as a throwback to the Stalinist era, when abortion was outlawed in 1936, and women ending unwanted pregnancies often turned to illegal and unsafe procedures.

"My grandmother worked as a teacher in a vocational school. She was telling me stories about abortions being performed with wardrobe hangers in the dormitories," said Lina Zharin, a psychotherapist and feminist activist in Kaliningrad, where lawmakers are considering banning abortion in private clinics.

"Seemingly, everyone knows about it, about how scary it was, and I think that a lot of people are surprised and outraged that we're going back to it," she said.

Two years after Stalin's death in 1953, authorities reversed the ban to curtail dangerous illegal abortions. But they didn't endorse contraceptives, says Michele Rivkin-Fish, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with the government remaining "pro-natalist" and wanting women to have children while staying in the workforce.

Abortion became a common way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy amid the harsh Soviet economy, even though Rivkin-Fish said conditions at clinics often were "terrible."

"Anesthesia was in short supply. … There was no privacy -– you would have your abortion with other people in the ward," she said. Painkillers were of low quality or scarce, she added, "so women were often in excruciating pain."

Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, a movement for family planning and adequate birth control was launched in the late 1980s by physicians who were mostly women, according to Rivkin-Fish.

After the USSR's 1991 demise, President Boris Yeltsin funded family planning and birth control programs, and doctors were trained to prescribe and administer contraceptives.

"They all went through a federal family planning course that I taught and led," said Dr. Lyubov Yerofeyeva, a gynecologist and a reproductive health specialist at the core of the effort.

By the late 1990s, federal funding fizzled because of conservative opposition. Abortion regulations remained less restrictive, however. Women could terminate a pregnancy until 12 weeks without any conditions, and until 22 weeks for many "social reasons," such as divorce, unemployment or low income.

In 2003, the authorities cut that list to just four: if a woman was raped, if she was in prison, if her parental rights were restricted, or if her husband died or became severely disabled during her pregnancy.

"This was the first sign that I saw that the government is concerned about lowering abortion rates, and they're going to do so through access, restricting access," Rivkin-Fish said.

Conservative lawmakers proposed more restrictions in 2011, including that women need permission from their husbands or from their parents if underage; that doctors could refuse abortion if they opposed it; and that a woman must wait two to seven days, depending on the stage of pregnancy, to give her a chance to change her mind.

Yerofeyeva and a reproductive health group she ran, Russian Association of Population and Development, pushed back against these proposals, and only two were adopted nationally: allowing doctors to refuse if against their beliefs, and the mandatory waiting period of 48 hours to a week.

In 2012, the number of "social reasons" for allowing abortion between weeks 12 and 22 was cut to just in the case of rape.

Under Health Ministry regulations adopted in 2015-16, doctors had to offer women the chance to listen to the "fetal heartbeat" and show them ultrasound images. They also changed an abortion consent form to emphasize its risks, "the possibility of not resorting to it, and the preference of carrying a pregnancy to term."

Yerofeyeva's Russian Association for Population and Development was declared a "foreign agent" — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong negative connotations — and soon ceased activities.

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova ordered the Health Ministry to look into banning abortions for those under 18 without parental consent.

In a speech to parliament this year, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko criticized women who prioritize education and careers over childbearing, and supported an abortion ban in private clinics — where up to 20% occurred in recent years. He also moved to restrict abortion pills, which are approved to be taken to end a pregnancy in the first 10 weeks.

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