In Estonia, Soviet leader Josef Stalin prohibited abortion, but it became more accepted under subsequent Kremlin leaders. However, within a short span of 100 years, the Russian government’s stance on abortion is shifting once more.
While abortion remains legal and accessible, there are plans to implement additional limitations as President Vladimir Putin shifts towards more socially conservative policies and aims to address Russia’s decreasing population.
After adopting the Russian Orthodox Church, he is emphasizing “traditional family values” – a common term used to distinguish his nation from Western views on LGBTQ+ rights and other policies.
It is viewed by some as a reminder of the Stalinist period, when abortion was banned in 1936, leading women to resort to risky and illegal methods to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Lina Zharin, a psychotherapist and feminist activist in Kaliningrad, shared that her grandmother was a teacher at a vocational school. Her grandmother recounted stories of abortions being carried out in dormitories using wardrobe hangers. Currently, lawmakers in Kaliningrad are discussing a potential ban on abortions in private clinics.
“Apparently, it is common knowledge, the terrifying experience, and I believe many individuals are shocked and angered by the fact that we are reverting to it,” she stated.
After Stalin died in 1953, the ban on illegal abortions was lifted by authorities after two years. However, Michele Rivkin-Fish, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that contraceptives were not promoted by the government. They maintained a “pro-natalist” stance, encouraging women to have children while also working.
Abortion became a common way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy amid the harsh Soviet economy, even though Rivkin-Fish said conditions at clinics often were “terrible.”
“We were facing a shortage of anesthesia. There was a lack of privacy as women would have to undergo their abortions in the presence of others in the ward,” she explained. She also mentioned that painkillers were either of poor quality or hard to come by, resulting in many women experiencing severe discomfort.”
During the late 1980s, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, a campaign for family planning and effective birth control was initiated by female physicians as reported by Rivkin-Fish.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, President Boris Yeltsin implemented initiatives for family planning and birth control, including training for doctors to prescribe and distribute contraceptives.
Dr. Lyubov Yerofeyeva, a gynecologist and reproductive health specialist, stated that she taught and directed a federal family planning course that all of them completed.
In the late 1990s, conservative opposition led to a decrease in federal funding. Despite this, there were still relatively lenient regulations surrounding abortion. Women were allowed to have an abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy without any conditions, and up to 22 weeks for various “social reasons” such as divorce, unemployment, or low income.
In 2003, the list was reduced to only four reasons: rape, incarceration, restricted parental rights, or the death or severe disability of the woman’s husband during pregnancy.
According to Rivkin-Fish, this was the initial indication that the government is prioritizing the reduction of abortion rates and will achieve it by controlling access.
In 2011, legislators with conservative views suggested additional limitations, such as requiring women to obtain consent from their spouse or parents if they are minors, allowing doctors to decline performing abortions based on personal beliefs, and implementing a waiting period of two to seven days (depending on the pregnancy stage) to give women time to reconsider their decision.
Yerofeyeva and her organization, the Russian Association of Population and Development, opposed these suggestions and only two were implemented at a national level: allowing doctors to decline based on their personal beliefs, and requiring a waiting period of 48 hours to a week.
In 2012, the criteria for allowing abortion between weeks 12 and 22 were narrowed down to only include cases of rape.
In 2015-16, the Health Ministry implemented regulations that required doctors to give women the option to hear the “fetal heartbeat” and view ultrasound images. They also modified the abortion consent form to highlight the potential risks, alternative options, and the importance of carrying a pregnancy to full term.
The Russian Association for Population and Development, led by Yerofeyeva, was labeled as a “foreign agent,” resulting in increased government monitoring and ultimately causing the organization to stop its operations.
In the previous year, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova instructed the Health Ministry to investigate the possibility of prohibiting abortions for individuals under the age of 18 without parental approval.
During a recent address to parliament, Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko condemned women who prioritize their education and careers over having children. He also expressed support for a ban on abortions in private clinics, where they have accounted for up to 20% of procedures in recent years. Additionally, he proposed restrictions on the use of abortion pills, which are currently approved for use in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.