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Russia ponders restrictions on abortion rights

Russian women’s reproductive rights are under threat with a new bill before parliament calling for radical changes to access to abortion. Who's driving the pro-life bus and at what cost, asks Fiona Clark?

Way back in 1990 one of the first articles I wrote when I arrived in Moscow was about a woman who'd had 26 abortions. She was soon usurped by a friend of mine's mother who told me she'd had 29 over the course of her reproductive years.

The contraceptive pill wasn't available and I'm told by reliable sources that Russian condoms, if you could manage to find them, were about as sensitive as washing up gloves. Not surprisingly they weren't very popular. Abortion was the standard form of contraception and Russia had the highest rate in the world with 119.9 abortions for every 1,000 women aged between 15-44 or 103 for every 100 births. In fact in 1990 there were more than 3.9 million abortions and it's said that during the Soviet period there were more terminations than there were lives lost in the first and second world wars combined.

These days the rate is still one of the highest in the world but it has dropped considerably to about 990,000 a year, or 49 per 100 births. That means that now every third pregnancy is terminated.

Added incentives

The reason for the improvement? Russia has been battling a declining population since the collapse of the Soviet Union and over the past decade has introduced a number of financial and child support incentives to encourage people to have more kids. These, along with an improved economy, have to some extent worked and population growth is no longer negative. But the argument for improving demographics has provided fertile ground for pro-life supporters. Enter the "Warriors for Life" group and the Russian Orthodox Church. For the past few years they've been lobbying hard for changes to Russia's liberal abortion laws.

And now a new bill is sitting before the state parliament, or Duma, that calls for state funding for abortions to be axed. This is the first step, according to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, toward a total ban. Pro-life websites quote church officials saying they'd like to see abortions completely outlawed within the next two years while Warriors for Life want it banned now.

Russian Patriach Kirill

The church is putting its stamp on the issue of abortion

At the moment abortions are free and available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy but require a 'social' or medical reason for terminations from 13 to 22 weeks. If the bill is passed, women will have to pay for the procedure which will only be available in state-run clinics. Private clinics will be banned from performing them and will face hefty fines ranging from 500,000-2.5 million rubles (8,130-40,670 euros) if caught.

The bill also aims to stop the sale of over-the-counter emergency contraception. Instead women wanting the 'morning after pill' will have to see a doctor and get a prescription. In addition it calls for compulsory ultrasounds for women considering an abortion because, according to one of the bill's drafters Yelina Mizulina from the center-left Fair Russia party, statistics show that "up to 80 percent of them refuse to have the abortion when they see their child on the screen." Media organisations are already banned from advertising abortion services.

State and Church align

As a sign of the growing closeness of the state and church, the Patriarch gave the first speech ever by a member of a religious order to the Duma in January this year. He said abortion was "evil" and "infanticide." In a bid to make the prospect more appealing to the nationalistic members he played a demographics-cum-national security card to support his argument. "If we manage to cut the number of abortions by 50 percent we would have stable and powerful population growth," he told the MPs.

Four months later and Ms Mizulina's bill is ready for approval. In 2013 Mizulina, an outspoken advocate for traditional family values, argued that society's tolerance of abortion and surrogacy threatened to wipe out not just the Russian population but the whole world.

Failure of church and state

But what the church and state both fail to do for the younger generation is provide any form of sex education. The government has talked about introducing it in schools but so far there has been no movement. Young HIV positive people I've spoken to said they had no idea how the disease was spread until they were infected. Women aren't taught about safe sex and contraception and many still believe that the pill will lower your libido and have other bad health effects. A poorly educated medical profession without proper access to up-to-date information compounds the problem as does the cost at between 600-2000 rubles a month depending on the brand.

As a result only 12 percent of the population uses oral contraceptives. According to a recent survey only 55 percent of the population use any form of contraception at all and those range from that group on the pill to Intrauterine Device users and those who believe they're practicing safe sex by using the calendar method or withdrawal. Not surprisingly there's a very high rate of pregnancy, and ipso facto, abortion.

Woman in theatre copyright: Fiona Clark

Fiona Clark writes a regular column for DW from Moscow

Making pregnant women pay to have their abortion will not stop the demand for them and if they can't afford to pay whatever the state decides to charge of them then they'll be looking for cheaper 'backyard' alternatives.

Mothers at risk

The Patriarch denies there will be a flow-on effect as he's advocating that the state charge the same as the private clinics. "The argument that a ban would cause an increase in the number of underground abortions is pure nonsense. People have to pay money for these operations and our task is to make the price of a legal infanticide the same as of the illegal one. Taxpayers must not pay for this," he told the Duma.

But those who went to the state-run clinics in the first place presumably did so because they couldn't afford the private option. The vast majority are young girls with meagre incomes.

And evidence shows women's lives will be at risk. The World Health Organization states "legal restrictions on abortion do not affect its incidence; women seek desperate measures if they cannot obtain safe abortions." Data from Romania revealed that, when termination of pregnancy was banned by the Ceausescu regime, maternal mortality was more than 20 times higher than today.

In the end the Warrior's for Life, the Patriarch and the state may find their new alliance could end up costing them the very lives they depend on to boost their population.

Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV news reporter in the mid-1980’s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow, having worked there from 1990-92. What was to be a two-year posting is still continuing.

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