The First Country to Legalize Abortion Still Left Women Few Options

Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace as they overthrow the provisional government during the Russian Revolution in 1917.

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Why you should care

The Soviet Union was the first country to legalize abortion, but the resulting social culture wasn’t about empowerment.

Beyond Roe vs. Wade: OZY delves into views about abortion around the world. Beyond Roe vs. Wade: OZY delves into views about abortion around the world.

As the Bolsheviks thronged Petrograd in revolutionary fervor in late 1917, their “to-do” list after toppling the Tsarist regime was long: Yank Russia out of a catastrophic world war, then finish off another at home against the remaining supporters of the old autocracy. Once that was accomplished, they’d move onto empowering the peasants and workers scattered across the massive nation.

Oh, and offer women full access to safe and legal abortion.

Considering the era, the step was monumental — part and parcel of the Bolsheviks’ grand plan to eliminate the supposedly “bourgeoisie” family while building a functional and egalitarian communist state. But the complete picture is far more complex. Thanks to an ineffective planned economy and a stifling power structure, the Soviet experience proved to be a failure in many aspects of everyday life, and reproductive rights were no exception. 

Today, Russia remains gripped in a cultural clash between progressive values and a conservative, morals-based approach championed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

 

What began as an idealistic pursuit of civic empowerment ended up, by the twilight years of the Soviet Union, becoming quite the opposite: In the absence of other meaningful methods of birth control, abortion was often the only choice for women hoping to control their family size. “The whole shift that happened in the West — the sexual revolution that was made possible by the pill — didn’t happen,” said Michele Rivkin-Fish, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. That legacy is still felt in Russia and other parts of ex-Soviet Eastern Europe: Russia still has a far higher rate of abortion than the U.S. or other European countries.

 

The other revolution, though, did actually introduce possibilities at first. By late 1917, the Bolsheviks had tapped into enough working-class anger to overthrow an autocratic regime that ruled clumsily and without regard for the people. Although Imperial Russia was formally an Orthodox state and abortions thereby illegal, underground procedures were rampant and accounted for the vast majority of hospitalizations of pregnant women. 

Because boosting living conditions was a key Communist promise, by November 1920 the Bolsheviks had legalized the practice with the goal of improving women’s health — and keeping them employed. It was part of an effort to promote contraception and women’s reproductive rights, one that even attracted the attention of American birth control activist Margaret Sanger during her visit in the early 1930s, when she called the Soviet Union “the country of the liberated woman.”

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A crowd gathers outside the Council hall in Kouna Lutherania during the uprising of Bolsheviks.

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But even then, problems were becoming apparent. Historians say that while the legalization of the practice contributed to a precipitous drop in abortions performed outside state hospitals, it dramatically boosted the number of abortions themselves. During the same trip, Sanger — though impressed with the state’s drive to incorporate women into the workforce — expressed dismay over what she said was the tendency of Soviet doctors to rely on abortions as a mode of family planning.

Then came Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose more than two-and-half-decade tenure was marked less by sticking to Bolshevik orthodoxy than by rigid personal rule. In the name of boosting Soviet nationhood, he instituted an abortion ban that lasted around 20 years. Unsurprisingly, that led to a spike in illegal abortions and maternal deaths, experts say.

By the time it was legalized again in the mid-1950s, abortion had become an integral part of the reproductive culture, despite the government’s continued pursuit of pronatalist policies. It was compounded by the economic woes that left the average consumer out in the cold. With state funds funneled to the military, or snatched away by corrupt bureaucrats, even the most basic goods, including condoms, were often unavailable — or of low quality and uncomfortable. IUDs were hard to come by, like everything else in the Soviet economy, and women even attempted to avoid pregnancy via folk methods like washing after sex.

While abortions hit their peak in 1964, with 5.6 million abortions (169 per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49) reportedly performed that year, they remained high in the years that followed. So while the women’s liberation movement was gripping the Western world with arguments in favor of choice, their Soviet counterparts were uniquely isolated. “Being a human being was not about making choices,” said Rivkin-Fish.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it gave way to an influx of Western goods, services and other influences, including more effective contraception and better sex education. As a result, according to the Guttmacher Institute, ex-communist Eastern Europe posted the single-largest drop in abortions of any global region over the last several decades, falling from 88 per 1,000 in 1990-1994 to 42 per 1,000 in 2010-2014. Federal laws have also become more strict over the past 15 years.

Yet it’s still extremely widespread — as is the lingering perception that abortion is a necessary evil rather than a reflection of a woman’s informed choice. “Russians tend to believe more than Americans do that abortions are bad for you,” says Leslie Root, a demographics researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Still, the latest reliable figures, from 2015, show that nearly 20 Russian women (aged 15-44) out of 1,000 had abortions, compared to 11.8 in the United States. 

Today, Russia remains gripped in a cultural clash between progressive values and a conservative, morals-based approach championed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoys significant state support. Yet there are also signs that the times are changing: According to the state-run pollster, two-thirds of Russians are in favor of instituting standardized sex education in schools — which could help prevent pregnancies, and thus, abortions. But whether the country will be able to shed its painful Soviet past remains to be seen.

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