In the sub-field of Geography that is called Population Geography, the focus very much is on births, deaths, and migration. Clearly, abortion directly reduces the number of births that occur. In this essay, we examine the role and history of abortion in Russia.
Under the tsarist regime and influenced by the Orthodox Church, abortion was illegal in Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution repudiated both of these traditional Russian institutions, bringing numerous and far reaching changes. One of these changes was the legalization of abortion, by Lenin’s decree in 1920, becoming the first country to do so. Unlike the situation in Russia now, there was no shortage of births; in fact, allowing abortion to bring about a reduction in births was satisfactory for the new communist leadership. The building of socialism required the efforts not only of men, but also of women. The constraints and responsibilities inherent to a large family would restrict mothers’ contributions to societal change. Small family size, even if at the cost of state-funded abortion, would allow women, emancipated women, to participate significantly in socialism. The practice of the government in building undersized urban apartments as the city norm also was more than a hint of desired family size.
In a truly ironic twist, Stalin reversed Lenin’s decree in 1936, becoming pro-life at the same time that his policies were having millions executed or sent to Siberian labor camps. Yes, the population losses of the Stalinist Terror needed to be offset by a higher birth rate. The subsequent onset of World War II shortly afterward magnified the need for more births to offset war losses. However, since family planning services and the availability of contraceptives were very limited, significant demand for abortion remained, resulting in a black market for abortions.
Following Stalin’s death, the 1950s brought a reevaluation of many of his policies, including the ban on abortion. In 1956 abortion once again became legal, apparently due in part to the need to reduce the more dangerous black market abortions. By then a more and more urban population in crowded living spaces and with modest incomes far preferred the small family size. In 1957 abortions numbered over three million and accounted for a majority of all pregnancies in the USSR. (The Central Asian republics of the USSR contributed few of these abortions, inhibited by Islamic repudiation of abortion, traditions of large family size, and higher rural population shares.) Abortions in the USSR peaked in the 1965. became commonplace. For instance, in 1965 sixteen of every 100 women of childbearing age had an abortion. As a comparison, note that under the current legal status of abortion in the United States, there has never been a year in which more than one out of every thirty women of childbearing age had an abortion.
Abortion was the standard method of birth control throughout the Soviet period. As in other countries with legal abortion, in the USSR working women were more likely to have abortions than were stay-at-home moms.
While the Soviet Union did produce weaponry and heavy machinery in noteworthy quantity and quality, the manufacture of consumer products commonly was both limited and sub-standard. Access to foreign goods was restricted, as imports from capitalist countries were not favored by the government. This was true too for contraceptives. Few and poor quality were made in the USSR, while few were imported. Soviet men lamented this circumstance by joking that using Soviet condoms was like wearing cement overshoes.
The breakup of the USSR brought revolutionary changes to life in Russia, and some change to the practice of abortion. While still legal, abortions became simpler and less arduous due to the introduction of the vacuum aspiration technique. Contraceptives gained some access to the marketplace, though priced by capitalist market forces. In 1990 a majority of Russian women had never used any form of contraception other than abortion. At that time abortions doubled the number of live births.
A serious consequence of multiple abortions is an increased level of infertility among women. At a time when Russia’s birth rate is low and the national population in many recent years have declined, it is disturbing that many women find it difficult to conceive, at least in part due to the effects of previous abortions.
In 2003 the Russian government passed a law banning abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy, except for special circumstances. By 2007 live births finally superseded the number of abortions. Given concerns over population size, for a number of years now the Russian government has set forth pro-natalist policies, such as financial incentives for parents who add second and third children to their families. Indeed, the number of births in Russia rose year by year from 2005 to 2012 with corresponding year by year declines in the numbers of abortions. Even so, Russia has struggled to have enough births to offset yearly deaths.
Spontaneous abortions (biologically occurring, generally due to the inviability of the embryo or fetus) in Dzerzhinsk, a city with a major chemical industry and now cited as one of the ten worst polluted places in the world, are three times higher than the Russian average and for the 1990s averaged over 15% of all pregnancies.
Another study shows that for 1998-2000 abortions were less common for women with higher education, more common as family size increased, less common with use of high quality contraceptives and more common for cohabitating couples than for married couples.
For tabular data on abortions in the USSR/Russia, especially since 1957, go to:
Cited and additional bibliography:
Anikina, Maria. 2008. “Russia: Abortion Resistance Growing.” Spero News Online. April 2, 2008. Spero News Online.
DaVanzo, Julie, and Clifford A. Grammich. 2001. “Improvements in Contraception Are Reducing Historically High Abortion Rates in Russia:” Www.Rand.Org. 2001. http://rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB5055/index1.html.
Ferris-Rotman, Amie. 2017. “Putin’s Next Target Is Russia’s Abortion Culture.” Foreign Policy. October 3, 2017. https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/03/putins-next-target-is-russias-abortion-culture/.
Feshbach, Murray. 2003. Russia’s Health and Demographic Crises : Policy Implications and Consequences. Washington: Chemical And Biological Arms Control Institute.