Abortion was never as controversial in Russia as it once was in Belgium. But since the war in Ukraine, the debate has flared up. Women should have more children, terminating a pregnancy is against the interests of the state. Because too few new soldiers are born this way.
The message on the billboards that have appeared in Russian cities in recent months leaves little to the imagination. The poster shows a fetus on the left and a boy in a camouflage uniform on the right, saluting, with an army helmet on his head that falls over his ears. “Protect me today,” says the fetus, to which the boy responds, “so I can protect you tomorrow.” Sender: a religious Russian Orthodox foundation.
Russia has traditionally had liberal abortion legislation. Women can choose to have an abortion up to twelve weeks into their pregnancy. If the fertilization is the result of rape, that limit is 22 weeks and terminations of pregnancy for medical reasons are always permitted. There was little or no public debate about abortion.
But since the start of the war in Ukraine, the abortion debate has flared up. Religious conservative organizations and politicians publicly question the right to abortion. They are piggybacking on the radically conservative turn made by the Kremlin; Russia now likes to portray this as a beacon of traditional family values in a world in which the decadent West imposes its corrupt morals.
Last summer, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko spoke of a “perverse trend” among women, which requires them to “first get an education, build a career and guarantee their material well-being before ensuring they have children.” He linked his statement to a call for stricter controls on the sale of abortion pills.
Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin also complained about “those women who do not want children, adopt cats and take it easy until they are forty.” He wants a national ban on abortions at private clinics. According to numerous patient testimonies, doctors at state clinics have been trying to discourage women from terminating a pregnancy for some time.
In recent months, a number of regions have taken the lead in the anti-abortion crusade. For example, ‘incitement to abortion’ can now be fined in Mordovia, Tver and Kaliningrad. Elsewhere, private clinics responded to religious calls to give up their licenses to perform abortions. In Tatarstan, Chelyabinsk, Kursk and the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, many private clinics no longer perform abortions.
Opponents of abortion often come up with the demographic argument: the birth rate in Russia has been declining for years. In June 2023, the country recorded the lowest number of newborns since World War II. Only 1.42 children are born per woman in Russia, while 2.1 children are needed to keep the population stable. The numbers are grist to the mill of anti-abortion voices such as Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In November, he stated that “the population will increase if we learn to discourage women from having abortions.”
Already far fewer abortions
Scientists believe that this argument is flawed. Historically, there has been no correlation between birth rates and abortion rates. In The Financial Times Russian demographer Aleksey Rashka pointed out that in 1988, when the birth rate was around 2.12, more than four million pregnancies were terminated in Russia, while in 2022 there were around 300,000, of which 120,000 were for medical reasons. In fact, the number of abortions among women under 25 in Russia is below the EU average and voluntary abortions are most common among married women who already have children.
Why then the flaring discussion? Or as Russian human rights lawyer and activist Alena Popava put it on Telegram: “There is no abortion epidemic in the country, so why is this topic floating to the surface now?” She also formulated an answer: “Populism always comes to the rescue when it is necessary to divert attention from real problems. War is the reason for the declining birth rate. The male population is also shrinking as a result of the war. But we are told it is abortion’s fault.”
And that brings the story back to the anti-abortion posters. By linking the problem of a shrinking population to the struggle for traditional values and even the defense of the motherland, conservative organizations and politicians play on a sense of patriotism and nationalistic sense of duty. Go and raise more soldiers, seems to be the underlying message.
A credo that is also becoming increasingly louder in politics and is in line with the conservative discourse that the Kremlin has elevated to a state ideology since the invasion of Ukraine. Although President Putin stated in December that he was against an abortion ban, he also said that terminations of pregnancy are against the interests of the state. Women should, Putin said, “protect the life of the child to solve the demographic problem.”