RUSSIA – The same old anti-abortion push is back

Photo: Urals Feminist Movement support abortion rights, August 2023 

The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to allow abortion, and until this year, modern Russia has (mostly) had some of the world’s most liberal abortion legislation. But in recent months, several Russian regions have pursued anti-abortion policies ranging from outlawing the so-called act of “coercing women” into having an abortion — which could also be interpreted as banning any information about safe abortion — to banning the procedure in private clinics.

The head of annexed Crimea’s Health Ministry, Konstantin Skorupsky, announced on 9 November that all private clinics on the Black Sea peninsula would stop providing abortions except when medically necessary. He said the region’s private clinics “voluntarily” decided to make this change following a proposal he made along with other regional authorities. Now women who want an abortion will have to go to state clinics, where doctors are likely to try to dissuade them from having the procedure.

“Spurred by the head of the Orthodox Church, Russian lawmakers are looking into banning abortions yet again, at least in private clinics, and new laws are already being discussed in some parts of the country, e.g. to charge a fine for “incitement to abortion”.

“Women seeking to end their pregnancy in Russia have been facing many new obstacles in recent months, e.g. the government is limiting the sale of abortion pills, the Russian Orthodox Church is pushing to ban abortion in private clinics, and two Russian administrative regions have already imposed fines for “incitement” of pregnant women to abortion.

“Church officials are also calling for laws that would make it mandatory for married women to obtain their husband’s consent before ending their pregnancy. Separately, Russian senator Margarita Pavlova, herself a graduate of the Chelyabinsk State Institute of Culture, recently said it was, “necessary to stop directing girls towards gaining higher education… which then, essentially, leads to nothing.”

“The initiative to limit abortion to state clinics has now reached Russia’s federal parliament. While lawmakers are still discussing the idea, officials in several regions, including occupied Crimea, have already announced that private clinics have “voluntarily” agreed to stop providing terminations unless there is a medical justification for doing so. This reportedly does not include the regional capital of Sevastopol.

This latest wave of anti-abortion rhetoric comes in the wake of the Russian government’s decades-long efforts to tackle the country’s demographic crisis without success. The fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic collapse of the 1990s caused the birthrate to plummet from just over 2 children per woman in 1987 to 1.16 in 1999.

Birthrates started to recover after Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000. Experts believe this was due both to economic stabilisation and state-approved financial support for parents under Putin’s regime. In 2015, Russia’s birthrate reached a high of 1.78 children per woman — although this was still below the maintenance level of 2.1.

In 2017, as a part of its efforts to raise Russia’s birthrate, Russia’s Health Ministry sent out a set of guidelines for counsellors working with women considering pregnancy termination. According to the ministry, the therapist should influence women by steering them toward preserving pregnancy and “forming a negative stance in women towards abortion”.

The war against Ukraine has sparked a new set of demographic issues, with widespread insecurity, young men being mobilised and many young couples leaving the country. In the first four months of 2023, Russia saw 3.1% fewer children being born than in the same period in 2022, according to media reports citing official statistics. Official data indicates the Russian population shrank by at least 524,000 in 2022, and is now close to 146.4 million.

The Kremlin is wary of “going overboard” on restricting abortion, because they “sense” that this idea is unpopular among parts of the Russian populace and they are “afraid of female solidarity”. Even so, they are imposing a series of restrictions amounting to a de-facto ban.

These include making it an offence to try to persuade a woman to have an abortion and pressuring private clinics to stop carrying out abortions, with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Kremlin, playing a key role as always.

Officials, ultra-right politicians and the church are actively forcing women and girls to give birth to unwanted children,” said the Urals Feminist Movement group, which has organised small-scale protests in favour of abortion rights. “These initiatives will only lead to a dramatic increase in the number of illegal abortions and a huge number of maimed and killed Russian women.”

Russia’s population is virtually the same size as it was over 20 years ago. According to official figures, there are now 144 million people in Russia – two million fewer than in 2001, when Putin first came to power. In 2022, more than 500,000 pregnancies were terminated, compared to 1.3 million children born in Russia. Mr Putin called it “an acute problem”.

Religious authorities say a key factor is the high number of abortions. Almost a third of Russian women say they have had one. Yet this is not unusual worldwide. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Orthodox Church for decades, believes that: “The population can be increased as if by waving a magic wand if we solve this problem and learn how to dissuade women from having abortions, statistics will go up immediately.”

Authorities are concerned that the decreasing number of young people, particularly men, will make it more difficult for the Russian military to recruit soldiers. There are also worries about the effects of a stagnant population on the economy.

Russian feminists say women’s rights are being curtailed to benefit the military and the economy. “They need new taxpayers, they need new soldiers,” Maria Mueller, of the Russian feminist association Ona, told the BBC.

The Health Ministry has drawn up guidelines telling medics how best to dissuade women from having an abortion. Doctors are encouraged to tell pregnant women who are younger than 18 that young parents bond better with their children “because they are practically from the same generation”. If a pregnant woman is single, doctors are meant to tell her that “having a child is no obstacle to finding a life partner”.

The authorities are also restricting the sale of medication used to end pregnancies, sales of which increased by over 50% last year. From September 2024, pharmacies will be required to register the sale of such pills in special databases.

The government is also offering financial incentives to pregnant women and those who give birth, including payments of up to 524,500 roubles (£4,680 / $5,830) which can be used to purchase property or pay for schooling.

A fifth of abortions in Russia are carried out in private clinics, which have come under pressure from religious authorities to stop offering the service. Accordingly, governors in 10 Russian regions are making efforts to stop private clinics from providing abortion services.

In the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea, private clinics stopped providing abortions in early November. Days later, it was followed by the Kursk region, where four out of five private clinics no longer offer the service. Meanwhile, the western region of Mordovia has introduced fines of up to 200,000 roubles ($2,250; £1,800) for trying to persuade a pregnant woman to have an abortion.

Experts fear that these restrictions will harm women’s health by discouraging safer medical abortions. “This was the method promoted by the vast majority of private clinics. More than 80% of their procedures were medical abortions, while state hospitals mostly perform surgical ones,” the WHO’s Ms Yerofeyeva said.

SOURCES: DW, by Darko Janjevic, 22 November 2023 ; BBC, by Vitaly Shevchenko, 22 November 2023 ; The Moscow Times, Russia on the Record, Podcast 49 minutes, 17 November 2023 ; Novaya Gazeta Europe, by Sonia Mustaeva, 18 November 2023