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New Russian Law Signals Tougher Anti-Abortion Stance, Could Spark Social Divide

  • Tom Balmforth

A symbolic cemetery by anti-abortion activists in Moscow (file photo).

A symbolic cemetery by anti-abortion activists in Moscow (file photo).

MOSCOW -- Father Maksim Obukhov, a graying Orthodox priest, began his campaign against abortion 18 years ago, when he would stand in the streets handing out flyers to mostly uninterested passersby.

But in a country that has long had one of the highest abortion rates in the world, Obukhov had little success in pushing his cause -- until now.

President Dmitry Medvedev last week signed a law requiring advertisements for abortion services to warn patients of the health risks of terminating a pregnancy. The legislation is widely seen as the first step in restricting abortion in Russia, where it has long been available on demand and is legal in the first trimester.

Sitting in the Moscow office of his For Life advocacy group, dressed in a black cassock, Obukhov tells RFE/RL that he welcomes the new law but favors an outright ban on advertising for abortion services.

"There is now a vicious and closed cycle whereby it is profitable for clinics to administer as many abortions as possible. So they create advertising campaigns which are obtrusive," Obukhov says. "This is a cause for major concern and dissatisfaction for many citizens, and actually most of the population has backed this new law."

The Soviet Union left behind an enduring abortion culture in Russia. It was widely practiced because contraception was mostly unavailable and sex education was minimal. According to the Levada Center, a public-opinion polling organization, 61 percent of Russian women over 55 years of age have had abortions.

Although widespread, abortion is less common than in the past because of the availability of reliable contraception.

Legislation expected to reach the State Duma in the fall includes provisions like scrapping free abortions at state clinics, outlawing the "morning-after pill" without prescription, and a weeklong waiting period after applying for an abortion.

Other proposals under consideration would compel married women to get permission from their husbands, and minors from their parents, before undergoing abortions.

Lobbying by the resurgent Orthodox Church, which has seen its influence rise dramatically over the past decade, only partially explains the drive to curb the number of abortions. Russia's ongoing demographic crisis, in which birthrates have plummeted since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is also prompting authorities to consider restrictions on the practice.

Russia's population, currently 141 million, has long been in decline. Women, on average, have 1.4 children per capita fewer than the 2.1 that authorities say are necessary to boost the population. The Health Ministry says nearly 1.3 million abortions were performed in 2009.

Igor Beloborodov, head of the Demographic Research Institute, which works closely with Obukhov's For Life group, tells RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that reducing even a small reduction in abortions could reverse this trend.

"If today we managed to reduce the number of abortions even by 30 percent, then instead of real population losses, we would be experiencing fairly perceptible population growth," Beloborodov says.

Demographic Decline

The recent drive to restrict abortions has riled Russia's fledgling feminist movement, which like its larger counterparts in the West sees reproductive freedom as a cornerstone of women's rights. There are also fears that restricting abortion could create an unregulated black market.

Natalya Bitten, a bubbly Muscovite in her forties who recently founded a group called For Feminism, sees the advertising restriction as hypocritical and based on "disinformation."

"In point of fact, a medical abortion carried out in a special establishment by doctors is safe. And if these people are going to say that they have to present all the information and list the possible consequences of the operation, then fine, go ahead," Bitten says, "But let them also point out that childbirth is actually a greater danger than, for instance, abortion."

Bitten also rejects the claims that restricting abortions would reverse Russia's demographic decline.

She notes that when Poland banned abortion, it had no marked effect on birthrates, which she says are now lower than in Russia. (The indexmundi.com website lists Russian "crude birth rate" at 11.05 births per 1,000 people and Poland's at 10.01.)

Women's rights activists say Russia's population decline is linked to poor social and economic conditions, extremely low average male life expectancy, and a new "wave" of emigration by Russia's middle class.

The potential overhaul of Russia's traditionally liberal abortion policy appears to be consolidating the country's traditionally weak feminist movement.

Bitten, for example, says she founded her organization last year in response to the legislative debate. She says her group has gathered more than 3,000 signatures in its petition drive against the legislation, which has also come under fire from other quarters.

Meanwhile, the city of St. Petersburg has seen both anti-abortion and abortion-rights rallies in recent weeks, the latter sporting slogans such as "My Body Is My Business" (in Russian, "Moye Telo, Moye Delo").

Vulnerable Segment

One of the provisions under discussion that has women's rights activists particularly upset stipulates that married women would have to provide clinics with permission from their husbands, and teenagers from their parents.

Critics say restricting the right to abortion downgrades women's status in society and makes them even more vulnerable to crimes such as domestic violence.

"In our experience, there are cases when women have been forbidden from having abortions and have been exposed to domestic violence as a result," Andrei Sinelnikov, deputy director of the ANNA center, which deals with violence against women, says. "If this draft law is passed, then of course it will put women in a more vulnerable position in which they won't have the right to be in command of their own bodies."

Domestic violence is a major problem in Russia, thought to claim around 15,000 lives a year.

But Russia's modest women's rights movement lacks the influence in the halls of power enjoyed by the powerful Orthodox Church, which is ultimately pushing for an outright ban on abortion.

Church officials, for example, have been invited to join a group developing more conservative restrictions to be discussed in the State Duma's next session in the fall.

Obukhov says he favors an all-out ban on abortion but recognizes that "Russian society is not ready for this kind of move."

"I, of course, support these laws because this is an operation that maims, and it is used mainly by healthy women who don't have any pathology," Obukhov says. "Abortions have very bad consequences, not to mention that they are bad from a moral point of view. Society must somehow protect itself from dying out and if possible protect unborn children and the women themselves."

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