Russia Begins to Reconsider Wide Use of Abortion

Article excerpt

Svetlana, now elderly, had three abortions; her friend had 17.

"Abortions were fatalistically seen in my time as an inevitable evil," the retired scientist recalls. "Contraceptives were practically nonexistent, life was hard, and most people simply could not afford to support more than two kids."

For Soviet women like Svetlana and her friend, abortion was the chief birth control method. Though the abortion rate has almost halved since the USSR collapsed and other forms of birth control became available, Russia still has one of the world's highest rates. For every baby born, two are aborted, according to official statistics.

A new decree will limit access to late-term abortions. That in itself won't dramatically lower the numbers. But it reflects a nascent public debate over the morality of abortion - and emerging official concerns about Russia's sharply declining birth rate and women's health.

"Artificial termination of pregnancy after week 12 is fraught with grave consequences for a woman's health," says an official spokesman for Russia's Health Ministry. "Abortions account for 30 percent of maternal mortality in Russia. It has been decided to reduce these dangers." The dangers include sterility; abortion is a leading cause of increasing diagnoses of infertility in Russia.

Critics fear the new decree is the first salvo in a wider assault on Russia's abortion laws, among the world's most liberal. The critics say the government may be trying to compel women to have more children - a demographic strategy that's been tried here before.

"They are not thinking about the welfare of individual people, but on some grand scale of social engineering," says Tatiana Litvinenko, a leader of the small, left-wing Russian Radical Party.

"I know that the Health Ministry was under political pressure and had to make concessions to some politicians," says Sergei Zakharov, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Center for Demographic Forecasting.

Anti-abortion legislators

Among those urging the new restriction, signed Aug. 11, were religious politicians. They say they'll continue trying to bring abortion to the forefront of public discussion - and to win a ban that allows termination only if the mother's life is in danger.

"Our initiative has the backing of the Orthodox Church, Russia's Muslims, Catholics, in fact all denominations," says Dmitry Savin, adviser to the small Christian Democratic Party, which has two Duma members.

"We know that public opinion is not ready to prohibit abortions," he says, "but we see the Health Ministry's decree as an important step forward."

In Russia, which was for decades an officially atheist state, abortion tends to be viewed as a common, if deeply unpleasant, medical procedure, rather than a moral issue.

A 2003 poll of 1,600 people by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) shows that 62 percent of the respondents would not support banning abortion.

But there are initial signs that some Russians may be starting to question the practice.

Gynecologist Natalya Boiko, director of the Zhizn (Life) Orthodox Christian Medical-Educational Center says: "While only three to four years ago it was impossible to say something against abortions among my colleagues - they would simply dismiss the issue with a laugh - now increasingly more gynecologists will at least warn their patients about possible complications, and some will even go so far as to explain that the fetus is not just a bit of mucus; it is already a human being and abortion will kill an unborn baby. …