How should we talk about abortion in Russia?

Abortion is no longer such a lightweight issue as it used to be in Russia. But moves towards banning reflect ultra-conservatives' desire for a witch-hunt, not changing public attitudes. Русский

Anastasiya Ovsyannikova
31 October 2016

Pro-Kremlin youth activists set up a "cemetery of unborn children" to protest against abortions, 2008. (c) Mikhail Metsel / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Abortion is back on the agenda in Russia. The recent appointment of Anna Kuznetsova, who is closely connected with a radical Orthodox anti-abortion movement (and who has sponsors in the Kremlin), as Russia’s new Children’s Ombudsman seems to have given a green light for another push against abortion. Patriarch Kirill recently signed a public petition calling for a ban on abortion. At the same time, Elena Mizulina, a prominent anti-abortion politician, has recently proposed excluding abortion from state healthcare. These latest developments, coinciding with mass protests in Poland against restrictions on abortion, have once again brought public attention to the issue. 

It’s a paradox: the readiness with which the Russian public responds to anti-abortion rhetoric is not only a symptom of the emergent de-civilising atmosphere of the past few years, it’s also the flip side of the recent softening and “humanising” of attitudes in everyday life, which, despite everything, has been going on over several decades.

There is only one argument for equating a human embryo in the early stages of development with a human being already born, and thus equating abortion with murder. It’s called “religious belief”. 

The existence of a “soul”, which does not correspond to what we usually consider the absent foetal consciousness in the first trimester of pregnancy, but which is inspired by god in a woman’s body at the moment of conception (already in complete human form, mind you), can only be a matter of belief. And, according to the iron logic of this belief system, abortion is unacceptable for any reason, with the exception of situations where the continuation of the mother’s pregnancy will inevitably lead to her death, and not always even then.

Indeed, Umberto Eco, in his essay “On the Soul of the Embryo”, writes that Thomas Aquinas distinguished between the “plant” soul of plants, the “sensitive” soul of animals and the “reasonable” soul of humans. For Aquinas, these “layers” of the soul are “absorbed” by humans sequentially, and a foetus has just a “sensitive” (i.e. an animal) soul — a “reasonable” soul appears only in a more or less fully formed body. How fully formed, Aquinas doesn’t specify, but he himself believed that while stillborn babies would rise from the dead after the Last Judgement, foetuses would not. 

Both Eastern and Western Christianity, however, follow the rules drawn up by the Sixth Ecumenical Council that took place in Constantinople in 690-691CE. Rule 91 states that “women who provide drugs to produce an abortion, and those who take poison to kill their foetus, are subject to the punishment for murder”.

Endowing the foetus with autonomy automatically denies the mother her autonomy, as the foetus is entirely dependent on her body

One could play around endlessly with statistics and the experience of different countries, which show that banning abortions does nothing to reduce numbers, and only leads to women being mutilated by back street abortionists or attempting to induce a miscarriage themselves. 

One could talk all day about how endowing the foetus with subjectivity automatically denies the mother her subjectivity, as the foetus is entirely dependent on her body, unable to survive outside it. 

One could make oneself hoarse reminding people that the attitude of the other person involved in the conception is often an important factor in a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. But this is all meaningless if abortion is murder: of course we can’t permit murder, even for the greater good. 


The Orthodox Church’s document on social policy describes abortion as “full-scale murder”. CC Adam Baker / Flickr. Some rights reserved.It would be interesting to imagine what the world looks like according to this belief. In such a world, if a person is an adult woman, then that person is most likely a murderer, and often a serial killer. This would certainly be the case in Russia: figures for 2007 show that 54.3% of Russian women aged between 18 and 49 had at least one abortion registered on their medical records for that year, and 32.9%, two or more. The year 2007 overall showed an average of 1.3 abortions per woman. 

This bloody Armageddon sets a bar that only Hitler or Andrei Chikatilo, the infamous Russian serial killer, could reach, and makes thieves, rapists, people who commit murder while drunk and so on look like innocent lambs. The Russian state, meanwhile, is merciless in putting thieves and rapists behind bars, but abortion is not only not punished, but financed by the taxpayer. This would be really worth showing in detail and full colour, at least to demonstrate why such a view of the world is so tempting. 

Figures for 2007 show that 54.3% of Russian women aged between 18 and 49 had at least one abortion recorded on their medical records, and 32.9%, two or more 

Those who believe that a foetus is equivalent to a born human being can acknowledge that this is the matter of religious faith and therefore something unprovable, something which a secular state is not obliged to share, meaning their position rests on moral rights.

This is exactly how the Russian Orthodox Church sees the issue. The church’s document on social policy (Fundamentals of social concept”) describes abortion as “full-scale murder” from a religious point of view, but doesn’t call for a ban on the procedure. Indeed, Patriarch Kirill’s recent signature on a churchgoers’ petition for a ban on abortion, which the church bureaucracy immediately presented as “only” for removing abortions from the state healthcare system, explicitly draws a line between the things to be rendered unto Caesar and things to be rendered unto the Patriarch . 

If the line isn’t drawn, and abortion is murder, then it’s not enough just to ban it (although any ban by definition assumes a punishment and not just the equivalent of an empty word “forbidden”). It then comes into a category exhaustively described in Russia’s Criminal Code as “the killing of a minor or other person whom the perpetrator knows is in a helpless condition”, a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment or the death penalty. In Russia, however, the death penalty is not used, and women are not sentenced to life imprisonment, so we’re talking about a prison sentence of up to 20 years. 

No one in their right mind is seriously suggesting such a step, just as no one is suggesting that a foetus immediately after conception be officially registered, given a name (and baptised) and provided with a insurance number, tax code and all the other stuff appropriate to a person whose existence is recognised by the state. Because, despite all the alarmist talk, no one is planning to set up a theocracy in Russia and, consequently, ban abortions.

This does not, however, mean there is no cause for concern.

Tightening the screws, slowly and painfully 

The September appointment of Anna Kuznetsova as Russia’s Children’s Ombudsman shows that the state is appropriating an ultra-conservative message, softening it, removing excessive religiosity and wrapping it in rhetoric about demography, sovereignty and so forth. For instance, Kuznetsova speaks out against abortion, but also against a total ban — note the similarity to the case of the Patriarch’s signature. 

The risk of abortions being removed from Russia’s state healthcare system is all too real, given the current draconic funding cuts, which have hit social welfare particularly hard. (I won’t deal with the right of the state healthcare to exist here.) 

The ministry concerned naturally denies this, but rather cagily states: “the introduction of further bans (including the removal of abortions from state funded healthcare programmes) should be carefully weighed against the risk of these restrictions leading to increased maternal mortality due to criminal abortions and also to reproductive complications, including infertility.” But the ministry of health has a short planning time frame, cuts are required immediately — extra funding to deal with the consequences can be sorted out later. 

An end to free abortions will effectively become a punishment for being poor 

It’s not difficult to predict that an end to free abortions will effectively become a punishment for being poor. According to a 2011 official report on “The reproductive health of the Russian population”, between 2006 and 2011, only a third of women terminating a pregnancy did not pay for an abortion, and most of these were women living in rural areas, mothers of large families and the poor. 

In the first place, people who have no money to pay for an abortion will borrow, although they may often be already deep in debt. And they can only get loans from microfinance organisations, at obscene interest rates, so they will have to pay many times over, taking money out of their already meagre household budget. Secondly, a market for “abortions for the poor” will emerge — cheap, but risky. And these are not people who will take to the streets in protest. 

We may also expect further administrative complications around abortions and, especially, more moral pressure on women. This process has already started: over the last few years, doctors in Russia have been given the right to refuse to carry out abortions, while women have been forced to wait  (usually) a week in case they would like to “change their mind” (which is actively encouraged), as well as being forced to undergo a “psychological consultation” and a scan to show them the foetus. 

The advertising of abortion services has also been banned. This last point is at least amusing: the lawmakers’ rich imagination evidently conjured up a woman who had saved a few roubles and was wondering how to spend them (on a new dress, perhaps, or a new hairdo), but then she saw an ad for pregnancy terminations and thought: “No, I’ll have an abortion instead – I’m worth it!” 


"Abort is murder" - graffiti outside a maternity clinic in Ekaterinburg. CC Perets Partensky / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Jokes aside, the advertising ban is in fact directed at private clinics. Yelena Mizulina, the Russian parliament’s main anti-abortion campaigner, attempted to ban private clinics from carrying out abortions, but it is these clinics that are more likely to use up to date, less harsh methods (“mini-abortions” using vacuum aspiration and medically induced terminations), whereas state run hospitals prefer barbarous, if performed without specific indications, surgical procedures (dilation and curettage).

In 2009, 30% of terminations in private, and 70% in state facilities, were surgical abortions. The situation is gradually improving: in 2004, only 20% of abortions used vacuum aspiration; by 2014 this figure had risen to 28%. 

But Russia’s anti-abortion propagandists love to quote astronomical and totally ridiculous figures for “illegal” abortions supposedly taking place in private clinics, and there’s no point in expecting commercial medicine to persuade women to keep their pregnancy. And this means that there will be more pressure on Russia’s private clinics, despite the fact that women who can pay prefer them. 

Indeed, perhaps that’s why. 

The abortion rate is falling by itself 

If the anti-abortion campaigners really wanted abortion figures to fall, they should cut their public hand-wringing and wait for the market (which implies individual freedoms) to do the rest. 

From a peak in 1964, when there were 169 abortions for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, abortion figures in Russia have been dropping. The downward trend was temporarily halted in the 1980s, but then it revived: there has been a consistent fall every year since 1989, with a figure of 127 abortions per 1,000 women in that year dropping to 26 in 2014 — an almost fivefold reduction.

These figures are exaggerated. Spontaneous miscarriages are included in the statistics for some reason; specialists believe they account for around 15% of cases. If we discount these, Russia, although it still, alas, has the highest instance of abortions of OECD countries, no longer stands out like a sore thumb. 

The number of abortions peaked in 1964, when there were 169 for every 1000 women of childbearing age  

The most interesting thing here is the constant decrease in numbers since 1989, without any blip in the early 1990s, despite the poverty and “instability” of those years and the drop in the birth rate. On the contrary, abortion figures fell fastest in those years. The reason was obvious — contraception became available (there was even state procurement and free distribution to those unable to pay for it) and so did sources of information, from family planning centres (created as part of a national programme) to ads for condoms on television. 

The end of the age of “permissiveness”, accompanied by familiar reactionary-patriotic slogans, began in the late 1990s. Since then, the screws have been gradually tightened — from time to time, little by little, almost imperceptibly. And the rate of decrease in abortions has followed suit. In our new century, it has taken 15 years for the abortion rate to fall to the same extent as it did in the 1990s. But the number is still falling and will probably continue to do so.      

It would seem that at a certain moment Russia passed the point of no return in what specialists call “abortion culture”. This is the system of accepted reproductive behaviour and assumptions in which abortion was used practically as a routine means of contraception and was seen as something absolutely normal, unpleasant but unavoidable, the “default scenario” for a woman who found herself pregnant. 

In 1967, there were three abortions for every live birth, but since 2007 there have been more births than terminations. 

Beyond punitive gynaecology 

Russia’s abortion culture is steeped in blood, pain and contempt for women. 

Abortion culture means that if you scream or cry when they cut you, you get told you didn’t cry when you were in bed with a man — you can’t have your cake and eat it! It’s a blood-soaked cloth between your legs, it’s being addressed familiarly by the ward cleaners, the impossibility of even resting at home afterwards. Well, you can take a sick day but everyone knows what the codes on the registration form mean, and you don’t want them to know, so it’s better just to take a day or a half-day off. It’s the realisation and acceptance of the fact that you are doomed to have another abortion, and another and another. It’s hell.  

People can learn to live in hell. As history shows us, there are far worse situations. You can develop defence mechanisms, but they don’t come free: the price of not losing your mind is the hardening of your soul. To go for one “clean-up” (as they used to call it) after another, you have to learn to regard your foetus as just a clump of cells, like a mole that has to be removed. And all the trappings of this punitive gynaecology add to the general demoralisation it produces — a naked, suffering and humiliated woman is in no state for high moral reflections.

This is a subject still in search of its researcher. Late Soviet society looks alarmingly unfriendly towards children. It’s not just a question of the accepted educational philosophy of the time, which effectively forbade parents to love their children (it discouraged them from “spoiling”, “excessive hugging and kissing” and “over praising” them, not to mention comforting a crying infant, feeding when they want it and so on).

Russia’s abortion culture is steeped in blood, pain and contempt for women 

But the midwifery of the time was after all just as punitive as the gynaecology. The pain and humiliation a woman went through in a maternity hospital was designed as a punishment for having sex, but there is another way of looking at it: a child is a punishment. Another thing was the way they looked at the few families with three children, as though they were some not quite decent social anomaly. 

So was this culture really “anti-child”? And if it was, then why? And what role did the violent rupture in the normal mechanisms of the biological bond between mother and child, from serial abortions to forced early weaning off the breast, play in this? 

The collapse of the communist system with its totalitarian view of the family, two-faced sexual morality (razvedenka, the pejorative word for divorcee, has now disappeared from everyday language, and people stopped pointing their fingers at unmarried mothers 20 years ago, in the big cities at least) and, crucially, the possibility of not having to tear an unwanted pregnancy out of your body by avoiding it in the first place — all this has broken down the no longer needed suppressive defence mechanisms. 

There is now, in principle, a space in Russia for a conversation about abortion as a moral, emotional and gender issue. 

A time to speak, not a time to be silent       

This conversation is, however, yet to take place. The space earmarked for it has been violently invaded and occupied by a wave of obscurantist anti-abortion propaganda, which sows guilt, fear and hatred. And there is every reason to believe that this wave will only grow in strength. 

As abortion culture as we knew it gradually disappears, talking about a foetus as a “mole” that you need to get rid of becomes more and more unthinkable. But the propaganda is clever at finding the sore point, the collective trauma woven out of millions of individual dramas, and it can silence those whose voices are essential if we are to achieve some new public consensus.

To announce, “I’ve had an abortion” has become more emotionally risky than to say: “I was raped” 

The ranks of “the silent” who passively support anti-abortion propaganda by not speaking out include both young, successful women who have learned how to avoid pregnancy and have never needed an abortion, so don’t really know what it’s like, and older women who regret the decisions they once took.

This is where the hashtag #imnotafraidtospeak, which was widely used in a recent Facebook campaign to speak out about sexual violence, would be useful. To announce “I’ve had an abortion” has probably become more emotionally risky than to say “I was raped”. Especially in the last few years, which has seen an emerging eagerness to surveiller et punir, and an increased demand for hatred that isn’t satisfied by hating gays, Ukrainians, migrants and liberals. And women with their “unborn babies” (as well as without them) provide so much new fuel for their flame.           

The fanatical ecstasy of the anti-abortionists, like all the rest of the ostentatious rapture at violence and cruelty, is, thankfully, more symbolic than real. But it is sufficiently aggressive as to ignite a reaction, to the detriment of all the other possible, and essential, content of public discussion of abortion. So all the possible responses end up as part of a human rights or feminist discourse. That’s good, right and important, but it’s not enough.

Maybe it’s time to go on the offensive. The “conversation about the need for a conversation” on ethics has already begun. Abortion is one of the most intellectually and philosophically complex issues to be tackled: it involves all the main questions of life, the universe and everything. Who does a woman’s body “belong to”? Does human sexuality have to be suppressed in the interests of responsible reproductive behaviour? Can we put an end to the gender disparity connected with reproductive biology? What is a human being?

We need to talk.           

This article was translated by Liz Barnes.  

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