"I'm really the best person to talk with about the abortion problem," said the smartly dressed Muscovite, 30 years old and recently divorced. "Some of my friends have had a lot of abortions."m
"Have you had any?"m
"Well . . . yes," she said hesitantly. "But only two . . . or three, maybe."m
The Soviet family, and the woman's place in it, are in crisis.
The causes seem various and will be covered in greater detail in the final article of this series. The symptoms are more obvious:
An alarming abortion rate . . . the divorce rate rising, too . . . a preference, particularly in the Europe part of the Soviet Union, for smaller families.
Soviet authorities, although careful to stress that decisions about families must ultimately rest with the families themselves, are fighting back.
The government recently announced an increase in maternity benefits. Maternity leaves are being expanded to a maximum 20-month period. The first four months are fully paid, the next 10 bring partial salary, the final six are unpaid but carry a guarantee that the woman's job will be held for her.
In the past, Soviet mothers have been handed a one-shot bonus of 20 rubles (about $30) on the birth of a third child. That, too, is slated to change. Women will now get paid for having only one or two children.
Valentina Svinarenko is already way out of that league, the official Soviet news agency Tass proclaimed recently, in part of what seems an ongoing press campaign for larger families in the European Soviet Union.
A Ukrainian, she just had her 15the child. The factory where her husband works celebrated by giving the family a minibus. "The family's five-passenger car," Tass remarked, "had long been too small for the Svinarenkos."
Soviet planners also hope to expand the country's subsidized kindergarten system, which amounts to a day-care program tailored for the large majority of Soviet women that works outside the home. Demand for kindergarten places, officials say, still outstrips supply.
But more than money and jungle gyms will be needed if Soviet women are going to start having more babies.
Soviet officials clearly know this, although they traditionally resort to verbal acrobatics when the subject comes up.
They know, too, that the number of babies Soviet women produce is important not only socially, but also economically and politically. The Soviet economy faces a labor shortage. The Soviet polity faces a demographic imbalance, with birth-rates in far-flungs Asian republics far outstripping that of the country's European parts.
The official press here -- although periodically rejecting Western predictions that the European-Asian imbalance could one day undo the Soviet system -- lectures on all these problems.
"The equality between a woman and a man," said one commentary in the weekly supplement of the government newspaper Izvestia, "is possible only when they have an optimal number of children."
How many is "optimal?"
"Not just one, of course!" pronounced the commentary. Nor two. But three. Women who have fewer children are "living against themselves," the article said, "inasmuch as they will, as a rule, begin to experience the joys of marriage only when they have become mothers." Three-time mothers, ideally.
The Soviets release data on abortions and family size with a lot more reluctance and irregularity than when announcing oil- or steel-production figures. Oil and steel are more manageable.
One Soviet official said recently that women here have more aborions than live babies. That, suggested a recent report by prominent Western demographic analysts Christopher David adn Murray Feshbach, is an understatement.They estimate that, on an average, each Soviet woman has six abortions in her lifetime. One Soviet source, they say, has suggested an even higher figure.
Even this postulated "average" -- 12 times the US figure -- could understate the abortion problem in European sections of the country. The Muslim women in the Asian USSR have more babies than their European compatriots. They also probably have far fewer abortions, which are scorned under Islam.
Soviet data on family size is also sparse. But Pravda did say recently that "at present, the small family is prevalent among approximately 80 percent of the country's population."
The official hope is to curb abortions, in part by making contraceptives more generally available to Soviet women. Outlawing abortion is dismissed as unrealistic, since this would only shoo the problem out of state clinics and into the hands of "illegal" practitioners out to make a quick ruble, or many quick rubles.
But if contraceptive supply and education in the use of contraceptives may chip away at Soviet women's tragically routine recourse to abortion for birth control, they probably won't actually increase the birth rate. They may just make the decision not to have a child a little easier.
"In many cases . . . we [women] don't want kids," said one young Muscovite. "A woman has her job to worry about, her own life, questions of money and the like."
The state can come up with money. It can guarantee jobs. It can, at least, soften the material burden of having children.
But, says Izvestia, "We cannot compelm married couples to have the [proper] number of children. . . .
"We have to increase the social prestige of the three-child family."
Tomorrow: Where has grandma, the babushka, gone?