Russia begins to reconsider wide use of abortion

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 statistics.

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 women's health.

"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 before.

"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 Forecasting.

Anti-abortion legislators

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 members.

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

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."

Some observers fear, however, that an acrimonious US-style debate over the rights and wrongs of abortion would distract Russians from learning more about options that make abortions less likely.

"We need to tackle the problems from the opposite end, by creating conditions where women plan their [reproductive] lives calmly and rationally," says Mr. Zakharov.

But in 1998 the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, quit funding the federal share of budgets for family- planning centers, which dispense information on contraception, safe sex, and abortion.

Fewer babies, fewer Russians

Meanwhile, whether from contraception or from abortion or postabortion sterility, Russia's birthrate continues to plunge.

"The trend among young women today is to get an education and a profession, and to put off [having] children well into their 30s," says Lyudmila Timofeyeva, head doctor at a private gynecological consulting clinic in Moscow.

Russia's population now shrinks by an estimated 700,000 annually - a statistic that causes deep chagrin in Russian nationalist circles. UN experts have predicted that in a half-century, Russia will drop from the current rank of the world's sixth most populous nation to 17th.

President Vladimir Putin has called the slide "a creeping catastrophe," while military hawks warn that Russia may not be able to defend itself or hang onto its vast Siberian hinterland if the decline is not reversed within a few decades.

Russia has tinkered with reproductive options before. At a Communist Party congress in 1934, Joseph Stalin complained that the Soviet birthrate was "lagging behind the pace of socialist construction" and needed to be stimulated. Abortions were outlawed - the ban was lifted only in 1955 - and family planning was eliminated from the public-health agenda.

Currently, official figures show that 60 percent of first pregnancies in Russia are medically terminated.

The new restriction will curtail the virtual abortion-on-demand right that Russian women have had for almost half a century by making it much harder to end a pregnancy during the second trimester.

But, scoffs Mr. Zakharov, "if the goal of the Health Ministry's new restrictions on abortion is to boost the birthrate, it is an entirely useless measure."

The main reason abortion rates have dropped in recent years is that young women are becoming savvier about contraceptives and family planning, says Dr. Timofeyeva.

How young women see it

Yelena, an under-30 saleswoman in Moscow, says she learns everything she needs to know from books, magazines, and TV. "The attitude among my friends is to try and prevent pregnancy," she says.

But, like Natasha, a third-year student at the Moscow Linguistic University, Yelena does not rule out having an abortion if preventive measures fail.

"I would like to do everything to avoid an abortion," says Natasha, "but it has never occurred to me or my friends that [abortion] is immoral."

If abortion were ultimately banned in Russia, it would simply go underground, with resulting health risks, warns Timofeyeva."Once a woman has made up her mind to have an abortion, she will find a way."

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