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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Russia turns spotlight on abortion
By Robert Greenall
BBC News Online

Russia could be on the point of a significant change in direction on morality and sexual issues, as a major debate looms over the rights of women and unborn children.

Russian school corridor
Russia has no real programme for sex education
A government resolution on abortion, approved last month, is the first restriction of any kind on the practice since a ban imposed by Stalin was lifted in 1955.

Russia is currently estimated to have nearly 13 terminations for every 10 live births, and the highest abortion rate in Europe after Romania.

The resolution, which went virtually unnoticed in the country's media, envisages restrictions on women's access to abortion after 12 weeks.

The resolution is the first step towards an attack on the rights of women
Inga Grebesheva
Family Planning Association
It is being hailed by anti-abortionists as a first step towards recognition of the rights of the unborn child.

Alexander Chuyev, a pro-life campaigner and independent deputy in the State Duma, described it as a "small victory".

But some pro-choice campaigners see it as the thin end of the wedge.

Russian mother

"The resolution is the first step towards an attack on the rights of women," Russian Family Planning Association director Inga Grebesheva told BBC News Online.

Previously, women in Russia could receive an abortion between 12 and 22 weeks of pregnancy by citing 13 special circumstances, including divorce, poverty and poor housing.

These have now been reduced to four:

  • Rape
  • Imprisonment
  • Death or severe disability of husband
  • Court ruling stripping of woman of parental rights

The measure is now irreversible, although it has still to go through the bureaucratic machinery of the Ministry of Health before it can be put into practice.

It may be that this will not make much of a dent in the overall statistics - officially only 7% of women who seek abortions do so between 12 and 22 weeks of pregnancy.

But Mr Chuyev told BBC News Online he was now pushing for a law to protect the rights of children, including the unborn.

Russia has every resource it needs to address social problems, if it wants to survive
Juliette Engels
Miramed institute
He hopes that any new measure will provide for the right to medical help for both the mother and the child, potentially making it harder for women to abort for medical reasons - something which has not been affected by the current resolution.

One factor which may have given the pro-lifers' message more resonance with the government is the rapid decline in Russia's population, which could shrink by as much as 30 million in the next few decades.

But experts say the resolution will not fundamentally affect the country's birth rate.

"Women are very decisive," Victoria Sakevich, abortion specialist at the Academy of Sciences' Laboratory for the Analysis and Forecasting of Human Reproduction, told BBC News Online. "If they don't want to give birth, they'll find ways to have abortions."

Education problem

Most pro-choice campaigners agree that something must be done to reduce the abortion rate, but they say that the most important priority is education, the lack of which is in itself contributing to population decline.

1990 - 3.92 million
1995 - 2.57 million
2000 - 1.96 million
2002 - 1.78 million
Many couples in Russia are infertile because of poor access to information about sexually transmitted diseases, Dr Grebesheva says, and some women are infertile because of abortions which would have been unnecessary had they had access to contraceptives.

Almost everyone agrees on the need for some form of education for adolescents, but that is about as far as the consensus goes.

There is no real programme for sex education in schools despite a 10-year discussion in government, a fact which incenses many campaigners.

"A 14-year-old receives no sex education but he can already be convicted for the crime of rape," says Dr Grebesheva.

'Widespread ignorance'

As it happens, the number of abortions has been falling in recent years, from a peak of 4.6 million in 1988 to under 1.8 million last year.

Russian orphans
Orphanages can be problem areas when children hit puberty
This suggests that knowledge about and availability of contraception is having some impact on sexual activity.

But Juliette Engels, the founding director of Moscow's Miramed institute - which runs a programme for single parents and women on low incomes - casts doubt on these figures, saying that half of all abortions are not recorded.

She is particularly concerned about the problem of pregnancies in orphanages, where children often live through puberty together without any proper adult supervision. These pregnancies are often not known about until after 12 weeks.

So the resolution may have more of an impact than some might think.

But the underlying problem, she suggests, is that the government simply lacks the will to tackle the broader issues.

"Russia has every resource it needs to address social problems, if it wants to survive," she said.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford
"For every ten babies born here, 13 are aborted"

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15 Jun 01  |  Europe
Europe's terms for terminations
02 Jun 02  |  Europe

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