Abortion and the Right to Life in Post-Communist Eastern Europe and Russia

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Cold War was, after all, about values. That is what people risked and sometimes gave up their lives for. States took values seriously: massive armies faced each other across value-divided lines around the world; behind them nuclear missiles cast a global shadow. The Cold War ended when the political system that suppressed freedom and imposed injustice was replaced by one that made freedom secure and justice possible. Having acquired power to decide their common future, people were free to talk about how to reflect values in their laws and institutions, and to act accordingly. They could form associations and petition the authorities and demonstrate for causes they cared about. They could form or join political parties that expressed their conception of the values that should inform public law and policy. And they could vote into office those who shared those values. The newly-elected legislatures took a number of important decisions affecting public policy on human life. The death penalty was abolished almost everywhere, and even where it remained its scope was narrowed. Nuclear weapons were withdrawn to Russia and reduced in number. Environmental improvement was related explicitly to life-threatening conditions such as unsafe nuclear plants and poisonous industries. And several parliaments and cabinets, spurred by strong public movements, debated whether and how far to extend legal protection to unborn children.

Under communism, there had been no authentic public debate about abortion policy. In 1920, by decree, Lenin made the USSR the first country in the world to legalize abortion. It was not a difficult decision for him to make. There is nothing in Marxism that stands in the way of legalized abortion. Marxist values of materialism and atheism offer no reason to pause, and the doctrines of class struggle and building a classless society require the full commitment of all who can work; concern with children and family distracts from these tasks and reflects attachment to bourgeois values that are to be eradicated. Unrestricted abortion facilitates faster progress toward utopia.

By keeping wages down (a simple matter in a centrally-directed economy), the Party effectively forced millions of women into full-time work. This underpaid productivity acted as a form of hidden taxation enabling the state to build up capital for economic development and the military establishment. Legalized, state-funded abortion was a way to encourage women to devote their energies to build socialism, not families. The state also discouraged childbirth through its housing policies, under-producing undersized apartments in urban areas, with a typical ten-year wait for a young couple to get a flat barely large enough for two.

When abortion came to the countries of Eastern Europe, it came by Party fiat, as it had in the USSR. This is also the way subsequent changes of policy took place during the communist era. As with other policies, public criticism and debate were risky.

What, then, have the people of Eastern Europe and Russia done in the post-Communist era about the law as it applies to unborn life? Which groups and institutions have influenced public opinion and legislation? Why has there been substantially more activity in some states than in others?

This article focuses mainly on Poland, Hungary, and Russia, with shorter reviews of other countries in the region. There are three reasons for this focus. First, more published material is available on the issue in these countries. Second, Russia is included because until 1990 the Soviet Union set broad policy guidelines on this issue for the countries it dominated, and it is this legacy with which the people of the region must deal. Finally, I have more first-hand knowledge about these countries on the basis of prior field experience or related work in the United States. …

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