(Corrects paragraph 22 in Nov. 8 story to make clear that
Stalin died in 1953, although abortion remained illegal until
* Russia has world's highest rate of abortions
* Lawmaker says limits needed to reverse population decline
* Feminists, physicians call for more sex education instead
By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, Nov 8 Women of all ages used to fill
gynecologist Lyubov Yerofeyeva's Soviet state clinic, lined up
by the dozen for back-to-back abortions. "It was more common to
take sick days for an abortion than for a cold in those days,"
Two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, wider
availability of contraception and a resurgence of religion have
reduced the numbers of abortions overall, but termination
remains the top method of birth control in Russia.
Its abortion rate -- 1.3 million, or 73 per 100 births in
2009 -- is the world's highest.
Backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, an influential
anti-abortion lobby is driving a moral crusade to tighten
legislation and shift public attitudes that are largely a legacy
of the Soviet era.
Adding to the debate is the Russian government's effort to
reverse a population decline caused by low birth rates combined
with very high death rates. With Russians dying nearly twice as
fast as they are born, the United Nations predicts that by 2050
its population will shrink by almost one fifth to 116 million.
Women's rights groups voice outrage that the Church would
play a role in shaping Russia's secular laws and say abortion
must remain a choice. They acknowledge the statistics point to a
public health travesty but suggest the problem would be better
resolved by sex education.
At the heart of the debate is an amendment to Russia's law
on health that is all but guaranteed to pass in the lower house
after it was approved in a critical second of three readings on
The law would cap abortions at 12 weeks, impose a waiting
period of up to one week from initial consultations and require
women over six weeks pregnant to see the embryo on ultrasound,
hear its heartbeat and have counseling to determine how to
"Our two main motives are the fact that Russia is dying out
and our religious tradition. We cannot forget our faith," Yelena
Mizulina, chair of the family issues committee that fielded the
law, told Reuters. "Despite the long Communist period, it is
seen as murder, as a violation of the ten commandments."
Russia's sharp demographic crisis, she said, adds to the
urgency. "America is not threatened with extinction, it can
afford to be more lenient," Mizulina said.
The government has worked hard to foster a baby boom,
honoring big families at pomp-filled Kremlin events, offering
subsidies to parents with more than one child and even raffling
off cars to women who give birth on the national holiday.
Experts say only migration can help plug the demographic
black hole, but that is a solution with potentially explosive
side effects given the country's ethnic tensions.
Fear that mostly Muslim migrants from Central Asia and the
Caucasus will replace a dwindling ethnic Russian populace have
helped fuel the Orthodox Church's newly vocal role on abortion
and other issues since the demise of the atheist Soviet Union.
One of the prominent personalities promoting the Church's
position on the issue is Russia's devout first lady Svetlana
Medvedeva, whose Foundation for Social and Cultural Initiatives
held a national week-long campaign in July dubbed "Give Me
Such initiatives have sparked protests. More than 150 human
rights and feminist groups signed a global petition against the
measures last month, while others have staged rallies in Moscow.
At one such demonstration, a handful of young activists
unfurled banners with the slogans: "Fight Abortion,
Not Women," "My Body Is My Body," and "Better Abortion than Bad
"Why should a priest decide what I do with my body?" said
one young feminist, Dina Orlova, 31, objecting to the inclusion
of priests on an expert council that drafted the Russian bill.
But the Church says Russians are ready to see more limits.
"Attitudes are clearly changing swiftly and should be
reflected in politics and the law," spokesman Archpriest
Vsevolod Chaplin said. In a first victory for the anti-abortion
camp, lawmakers approved legislation in July requiring abortion
advertisements to carry health warnings.
Nevertheless, stricter rules -- requiring parental consent
for young women under 18 or spousal approval for married women
and eliminating state support for abortions -- were left off the
new draft bill after polls showed them to be unpopular, Mizulina
One of the next steps, she said, is banning over-the-counter
sales of the so-called morning-after pill -- which she called
The Soviet Union was the first country to legalize abortion,
in 1920, but dictator Josef Stalin outlawed it in 1936, seeking
to boost births, and it was illegal until 1955, two years
after his death in 1953 .
Women's groups point to a surge in deaths from illegal
abortions under the total ban.
"They should look to history: If a woman doesn't want to
have a baby, she'll end her pregnancy with a coat hanger," said
Yerofeyeva, who set up the non-profit Russian Association for
Population and Development (RANIR) in the 1990s to promote sex
"Women do not owe the state, they don't have to give birth
like machines," she said.
Her organisation used to receive state financing before
funding for the majority of family-planning programmes was
slashed when Russia defaulted on its debt in 1998.
Today Russia has no sex education in schools.
The only way to reduce abortions, Yerofeyeva said, is to
disabuse women of "stigmas" and "superstitions" handed down from
Soviet times, when condoms made in the Eastern bloc were not
only scarce but notoriously thick, uncomfortable and prone to
break, while Soviet-made intrauterine (IUDs) often did not work.
Patients and physicians were equally skeptical about
first-generation, high-dosage oral contraceptives, believing
hormones to be responsible for all manner of ills and
With the arrival to the market of modern methods of
contraception in the 1990s, abortion rates fell by almost a
third but have since dropped more slowly. Experts say women
using the pill as their main line of defence against unwanted
pregnancy remains low, below 20 percent.
"'There was no sex in the USSR'," gender-studies expert
Irina Kosterina said, quoting a Communist party member whose
off-colour comment in a perestroika TV show remains a poignant
joke on Soviet-era taboos.
Many women remain shy about consulting gynecologists or
talking about sex, particularly with their partners, about how
to avoid unwanted pregnancy or protect against sexually
transmitted diseases, she said.
"Our sexual revolution came 30 years later than in the West
and was only for a very small class of women," Kosterina said.
Only ten percent of Russian women who abort are ending a
first pregnancy, she said, adding most have one or two children.
At a peach-and-teal toned private clinic, Irina, 27, was
having her second operation in a little over a year. Unmarried,
with a mortgage and parents in a faraway provincial city, she
said she cannot afford a child.
"Besides, my boyfriend doesn't want it," she said -- but
admitted that they do not use any regular form of contraception.
(Editing by Steve Gutterman and Sonya Hepinstall)