Vienna, January 30 – Since the onset of the economic crisis, more Russian women are getting abortions or thinking about doing so, actions that undercut their government’s already costly pro-natalist policies over the last several years and seriously compromise their country’s already troubled demographic future.
The Russian government does not release figures on the number of abortions performed, but anecdotal evidence from clinics, journalists say, suggests that the number of women seeking and getting abortions since last summer as compared to a year earlier has gone up by at least a factor of ten (www.dailyonline.ru/m/1932/).
Just how much, in the absence of official statistics, will undoubtedly be and remain a matter of dispute, but Dailyonline.ru offered one more objective indication of the growth in the number of Russian women who are not willing to bring a child into the world given the current economic uncertainties.
In November of last year, the news agency reports on the basis of data released by Yandex, users of this online Russian-language search engine sought information about abortions 560,000 times, ten times more than a month earlier. Searches on Yandex for “ending pregnancy” increased from 12,000 in October to 110,000 the following month.
Medical experts say that the last time they observed this pattern was at the time of the 1998 default, and they note that as a result of the increasing number of abortions in that year, the number of newborns was 69,000 fewer than in 1997, despite the fact that the number of women in prime childbearing years had in fact increased.
A decade ago, Russian demographers point out, the country bounced back relatively quickly with the number of births increasing to where it had been. But, this time around, they say, the economic crisis is likely to be longer and deeper and hence its demographic consequences are likely to be longer and deeper as well.
On the one hand, the crisis may last so long that many women will be beyond normal child-bearing age when it ends. As a result, they will never give birth, and the already low fertility rate for Russians, now only about half of the replacement number, will stay low or possibly fall even further.
And on the other, as was the case in Soviet times, as abortion becomes more common, it becomes more acceptable, especially in a country where this operation has frequently been used not as a last resort but as a primary form of birth control. In that event, even women who are still in the prime child-bearing years may nonetheless decide to stay childless.
To counter these trends, experts like Nikita Mkrtchyan of the Moscow Institute of Demography argue, the government must increase the subsidies it offers to mothers and the programs it makes available to children, all of which involve expenses that the government may not now have the money to fund.
And the authorities need to encourage women and their partners to look beyond the current situation and thus go ahead and have children now rather than assume that economic difficulties make such a choice impossible, a conclusion many women in Russia and indeed elsewhere apparently have reached.
But some writers, like N.A. Sokolova and Yu.S. Massino who work in the Russian Academy of Sciences argue that the Russian government has wittingly or not contributed to the increase in the number of abortions because of the reporting requirements it has established in two of its national programs (www.duel.ru/200904/?04_5_1).
That is because doctors can improve the statistics the government appears to care most about – reducing infant mortality, invalidism, and health problems – in some circumstances by recommending an abortion if problems are found in the course of examinations of the fetus rather than encouraging the mother to carry the child to term and treating these problems.
Not is this morally wrong, the two say, but such actions, driven by the government’s own policies, have the effect of depressing still further fertility and growth rates despite all that Russian leaders say about the need to boost the number of children per woman per life time and the overall growth rate of the population.
To counter this outcome, Sokolova and Massino call for an eight-point program, the most important provisions of which involve publication of more detailed statistics about why doctors perform abortions and a change in the way the performance of doctors is measured so that they will urge pregnant women to give birth.
Their argument about the unintended consequences of some government policies that make one statistical measure more important than another is important in a double sense. On the one hand, it calls attention to the ethical and personal dilemmas involved in this most personal of decisions.
And on the other, it highlights as the two describe in great detail the ways in which government withholding of key data from the population can make the elaboration of an effective and defensible public policy in many areas far more difficult if not in the end impossible.