Vienna, November 5 – In a move that reflects the Kremlin’s deepening concerns about demographic trends, the Russian government has moved to restrict abortions, a step that its advocates say will help boost birthrates but that opponents argue will only lead to additional and inherently more dangerous illegal procedures.
Last week, Russians got their first look at a decree signed by now former health minister Mikhail Zurabov in May but approved for release by the justice ministry only on October 17, a delay that likely reflects how controversial the move is even within the government (http://www.izvestia.ru/obshestvo/article3109831/?print).
The decree has four parts, all of which taken together will significantly reduce the ease of access to abortions by Russian women in the future and could even in the minds of some Russian commentators ultimately lead to a banning of that procedure as was the case in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
First, the decree requires that any women wanting an abortion be informed about “all possible negative consequences” of the operation. Second, it directs that all facilities offering the procedure employ a special social worker to tell women who apply for abortions all aspects of the procedure.
Third, ministry order cuts the number of reasons for a state-funded abortion. Fourth, the directive leaves only two unqualified justifications in place – for victims of rape or incest. And officials say that “the next step will be to ban abortions in private clinics” (RBK Daily, November 2, in http://www.pravaya.ru/leftright/473/14164?print).
The timing and content of this decree raise questions. Although Russia has for many years led the world both in the total number of abortions and in the number of abortions per woman, that country has been doing better in this regard recently, something that has cheered pro-natalists in the government.
Over the last five years, they point out, the number of abortions there has declined by 21 percent from 1,782,000 in 2002 to 1,407,000 in 2006, and during the last two years, the number of live births for the first time in many years has exceeded the number of abortions, albeit by small amounts (http://www.ami-tass.ru/article/28644.html).
But the continuing demographic decline of the country and especially of the ethnic Russian nation clearly and the fact that the decline in the number of abortions in the Russian Federation has not been as great as that in many other countries clearly worry Moscow officials.
And these considerations have prompted the Russian government to issue this inevitably controversial decree even as the country moves into an election where politicians of various stripes are certain to make an issue of it, with some supporting the measure as the salvation of the country and others denouncing it as a retrograde step.
(For the views of various figures, see “Kommersant-Vlast’” for October 29 at http://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=819512. One, Deputy Aleksandr Krutov said that “a country which supports the murder of children does not have a future,” while retired judge Sergei Pashin said this was “the rebirth of Stalinist and Hitlerite laws.”)
Abortion opponents have been enthusiastic – one article featured the headline “At Long Last!” (http://www.demographia.ru/articles_N/index.html?idR=1&idART=930) – or somewhat defensive – if a woman wants an abortion, she should have to pay for it, Elena Loria said in remarks quoted by Izvestiya on October 30.
But supporters of abortion rights are clearly troubled by what the Russian health ministry has now done. Anatoliy Vishnevskiy, the director of the Moscow Institute of Demography, warned that the measure will not boost the birthrate much if at all and will lead to more illegal abortions that will prove dangerous to women’s lives.
And Polina Orlova, in comments also cited in the same Izvestiya article, argued that it was morally wrong to restrict the access of women to abortions if they want one and that “one must not raise the birthrate by making it more difficult” for women and especially those who are less well off to gain access to them.
In many ways, this Russian debate echoes discussions in other countries deeply divided over abortions and the role of the state in guaranteeing access to them. But it may prove even more explosive because President Vladimir Putin has made overcoming Russia’s demographic decline a key element of his plan.
That means that measures like abortion that are intended to address that issue inevitably get wrapped up with broader political issues such as migration and the shifting balance between ethnic Russians and Muslims, issues that are already explosive without this additional fuel.
Indeed, in an online essay on Friday, Eduard Popov argues that Putin’s focus on demography has legitimized some radical views precisely because many in Russia now cross the line between responsible public discussions and openly racist views and thus provide support for extremist groups (http://narodru.ru/article13793.html).
Such a combustible mix of issues would be difficult to manage at the best of times, but during a high-profile election season, it may be beyond the capacity of any political regime to do so, except by the use of measures that no one would characterize as democratic.