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