Until I watched “Sex And The City,” in my university years, I hadn’t known there was a controversy around the subject of abortion. Miranda was about to have one, Charlotte disapproved, and Carrie pondered, ashamed, over revealing a past abortion to her boyfriend.
Growing up in Russia in the 1990s-2000’s, I never thought of abortion as shameful. I probably first heard about abortions in one of the ordinary middle-school sex education classes, provided by female care brands, in which lectures on ovaries, the cervix, and the importance of protection were followed by the distribution of free pads. “And to terminate pregnancy, there is an abortion.” As simple as that: a legal and accessible option for all.
The Soviet government was the first in the world to decriminalize abortions in 1920. The bill was part of a massive women’s rights expansion, which included voting and workers’ rights. But soon enough the legislation started tightening back, leading to a near-total abortion ban in 1936. This was Stalin’s crooked way of stimulating demographic growth, which infamously led to more than a million illegal abortions between 1937 and 1940, accompanied by a spike in women’s mortality, with no trace of an increase in the birth rate; on the contrary, it dropped.
It took Soviet medics almost twenty years to restore legal abortion. The data gathered in those years showed clearly that the abortion ban had not stimulated population growth, but killed women instead. In 1955, new laws secured the right of every Soviet woman to terminate a pregnancy in a public clinic. Because, in a communist country, there was no commercial healthcare, abortions became part of the right to free healthcare. And there they remained, until now—to the great displeasure of certain groups, led mainly by the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the USSR, the Church was banned; no god was allowed to be praised but the God of the commune, and the only belief one could have was belief in the power of the party. The matter of souls, unborn or lost, was never an argument in Soviet polemics around abortions, as has been the case in the USA.
In the 1990s, the Church rose from the ashes in Russia; in the 2000s, it started regaining power, by taking hold of more land and building more churches—and, most importantly, by strengthening ties with the Kremlin, thereby burrowing its way deeper into the country’s political and social life. Inevitably, abortion caught the Church’s attention too.
In 2004, Russia had the world’s highest abortion rate. “They were practically used as a method of contraception,” Mari Davtyan, attorney and expert on legal issues for the Consortium of Women’s Non-Governmental Organizations, told me in an interview, adding that as awareness and access to modern contraceptive methods grew, abortion numbers gradually decreased.
For years, anti-abortion activists tried to restrict the law in Russia: to ban abortion altogether, or exclude it from free healthcare, or, on the contrary, to limit abortion access to public clinics only. According to Davtyan, their movement was inspired by the American Protestant anti-abortion movement; Russian religious groups made use of the same technologies and narratives. “What we have to deal with today is purely the imposition of religious beliefs.”
And for all those years, the Ministry of Health continued to defend free access to abortion. But the wind started to change in 2020, Davtyan told me, with the appointment of a new minister, Mikhail Murashko, known for his anti-abortion views.
Fueled by growing anxiety over the war in Ukraine, contraception sales have risen, and birth rates have dropped. The Kremlin now urgently aims to boost the birthrate—and also, perhaps, to make women busy with something other than forming anti-war movements like the massive Feminist Anti-War Resistance.
This summer, Health Minister Murashko publicly criticized women’s pursuing a career or education before childbirth as an improper practice and said that “the situation should be reviewed.”
The first steps of this “review” included a national pro-life campaign, sales restrictions for abortion-inducing drugs, and, most radically,the criminalization of “coercion” into abortion. Two regions, Mordovia and Tver, have already outlawed “persuading, suggesting, bribing or deceiving” a woman into having an abortion. At the same time, the government presented a new benefits package for families, including preferential mortgages, maternity capital, additional payments for each child, and an expansion of public daycare.
Russian women are panic-buying contraceptives, as cities publicly showcase pro-family banners. The legal parameters of the “coercion” laws remain unclear, and the order to limit the distribution of abortion-inducing medications refers, not to specific drugs, but to substances also contained in emergency contraceptives, so we can expect limitations in the sale of contraceptives as well. Clearly, the vague wording of legislation remains one of the Kremlin’s best-loved tricks.
My colleagues at investigative media “Verstka” found that the Orthodox Church plans to push even harder to achieve the maximum possible restrictions on abortion (last year “Verstka” also investigated how the Church was able to stop the domestic violence law that would significantly strengthen women’s rights in Russia).
Ella Rossman, gender researcher and coordinator at the Feminist Anti-War Movement, suggests that Russia can’t be “coerced” into a complete abortion ban just yet, and pro-lifers understand this. Instead, they use “sneaky ways,” as she describes them, to limit women’s reproductive rights.
Rossman expects more efforts to ban abortions from private clinics, so that anti-abortion activists tied to the government would have more control over medics and possible “coercion” cases. Annexed Crimea became the first region where private clinics “agreed” to stop performing abortions “to support the government’s effort in rising demography.” Another region, Kursk, just joined the same initiative. One of the most active and dangerous anti-abortion groups tightly bonded with the Kremlin, “Women for Life,” also “educates” medics to dissuade women from having abortions, and runs anti-abortion phone “helplines” for women.
Protest is dangerous nowadays in Russia, but there are still ways to resist. “We encourage people to write to officials who do not support the new laws,” Rossman told me. The most important thing is to speak up. To talk about abortion rights, where one can, to write, to post on social media.
Ella Rossman urges us not to let our defense of reproductive rights fade away. “These people and organizations thrive in silence, using it to diminish civil rights and advance their misguided initiatives.” We must stay vocal to protect this isle of reproductive freedom. In Russia’s economic turmoil and in the midst of war, free abortion equals free women. It’s as simple as that.