Soviet abortion policies

An incredible historical portrait of the Soviet Union’s shifting approaches to abortion comes from Germain Grisez’s 1970 “Abortion: The Myths, The Realities, and the Arguments“. In light of Grisez’s death earlier this month, I’m excerpting a significant portion in the hope that this might increase awareness of his wider body of work among future readers.

In its essence, what was the Soviet approach to abortion? A serious of shifting arguments about human rights, but lacking any cognizance of the most foundational human right to life, that variously loosened, tightened, and somewhat loosened abortion policy based not on any philosophical or other insight into human rights or nature, but almost entirely on the ever-evolving needs of the Soviet state itself:

Abortion Law in the U.S.S.R.

“No book on abortion written today can be complete without special consideration of the movement in Soviet Russia to legalize abortion. The true significance of this unique experiment must be left for future generations to decide. Certainly the present opinion of the majority in other countries is that this movement is in many ways detrimental to the human race. In all fairness, however, a brief review of the measures originally adopted and their modification in subsequent years should be given, with an analysis of the results thus far obtained. In any problem into which social doctrines and religious and anti-religious bias enter so largely, it will be difficult to separate truth from exaggeration.”

Thus Dr. Frederick Taussig opened his chapter on legalized abortion in the Soviet Union in his 1936 treatise on abortion. Writing under sponsorship of the National Committee on Maternal Health, which represented the more venturesome wing of the American birth control movement, Taussig was fascinated by the Soviet Union’s “unique experiment.” Guarding against the influence of “religious and anti-religious bias,” Taussig had gone to Russia in 1930 “to see things at first hand.” Now Taussig was making sure that the benefit of Russia’s example would not be lost to his readers.

Prior to the Communist revolution, abortion was legally forbidden, with no explicit exception even for therapeutic abortion. In the first years after 1917, social turmoil was general. Probably abortion became more widespread in this period. On November 18, 1920 a decree was issued by the Commissariats of Health and Justice legalizing abortion.

The decree begins with a prologue that makes the following points:

—Abortion has been increasing for ten years in Western Europe as well as in the Soviet Union. (The Commissars did not want to put their own people in an unfavorable light, and were seeking support in the argument: “Everyone has the problem.”)

—Legislation punishes the woman and the physician, but this is ineffective, for it drives abortion into the basement and puts women at the mercy of greedy and unskilled abortionists. (This is the public health argument for abortion, with an appeal to sympathy for the woman’s plight.)

—Nearly 50 percent of aborted women suffer infection, and about 4 percent die. (These figures obviously could not be proved.)

—By propaganda and welfare measures the government fights this evil. “But, since the moral survivals of the past and the difficult economic conditions of the present still compel many women to resort to this operation,” the government decided to legalize it. (The “moral survivals” must refer to the reluctance of some women to bear illegitimate children. “”Difficult economic conditions” is a very brief way of expressing an official, restrictive population policy. The government could not provide the required welfare programs. Industrialization was more urgent, and a limited increase of population would assist economic transformation.)

The degree itself was simple. Abortions were permitted without charge in Soviet hospitals. Only physicians might induce abortion. Others, and physicians inducing abortion in private practice, were subject to trial by a People’s Court.

To understand fully the sense of this decree concerning abortion, it is important to know that the Soviet revolution also “emancipated women.” Sex differences were so far as possible disregarded for social and economic purposes. The rule was equal pay for equal work, and women worked in occupations such as mining and seafaring hitherto reserved to men.

Women also received equal education and equality of status in marriage itself. Divorce and marriage were made into easy formalities, and either partner had equal rights to determine place of residence and to hold and dispose of property. Sexual inhibitions were eliminated and sex lost much of its romance. One observer noted: “Chastity is admirable, but a girl who ‘slips,’ and still more a boy, is regarded as merely foolish.”

Abortion legalization thus filled three functions. First, as a public health measure, it aimed at eliminating illegal abortion. Second, as a matter of economic policy, it was aimed at population control. Third, as a legal matter, removal of criminal penalties contributed to the “emancipation” of women.

The legalization of abortion naturally led to a very rapid increase in the numbers of such operations in hospitals. In 1922 in Moscow there were 35,520 births and 7,769 abortions; by 1929 there were about eleven times as many abortions, 82,017, while births increased only to 51,059. Thus there were far more abortions than births, though the number of births actually increased.

The rapid increase in abortions caused problems with hospital administration. Some effects to curb abortion administratively were made as early as 1924; later, charged were levied on those who could afford to pay. Special units—abortoria—were set up to perform the operations on a mass production basis; Taussig reported fifty-seven abortions performed by four abortionists in two and one-half hours. Government sources claimed that the experiment was very successful, that the death-rate was very near to zero and the morbidity-rate quite low. In Moscow in 1925 it was claimed there were no fatalities in 11,000 abortions; only about 4 percent of over 50,000 cases showed bad effects. Twelve years after legalization the government statistician claimed that the lives of 300,000 women had been saved by legalizing abortion.

One of the authors of the legalization decree, Commissar of Health N.A. Semanshenko, argued in a 1934 book that the Soviet way was far preferable to the German. In Germany postpartum deaths were far higher and, he claimed, the rate of abortions was twice as high. Thus the Soviet way meant fewer abortions and these done upstairs, not in the “basement” of illegality. The abortions he said were mainly done because of housing shortage, poverty, illness, and large families.

The Soviet statistician Genss pointed out to Dr. Taussig that the birth-rate had been maintained, and argued from this that the rapid increase in hospital abortion only indicated that hitherto criminal operations were now entering hospitals. As Taussig observes, Genns’ own figures do not bear out the claim that the birth-rate had been maintained, although it had not fallen sharply and the population continued to grow during the first decade of legalized abortion.

Taussig, who was not unsympathetic to the Soviet experiment, observed: “In fact, the bulk of the evidence points to an actual as well as an apparent increase in the abortion rate, for in the past five years, during which the number of secret abortions has apparently been stationary, the total number has shown a steady increase.”

Though illegal abortions were fewer under legalization than before, Taussig also noted: “Even so, the evidence from various sources  leads to the conclusion that there are still a considerable number of abortions being done outside the law. It would seem that the very legalization of abortion has led some women to regard more lightly the moral and religious scruples that in the past had restrained them from undertaking such measures.”

Beginning in the late twenties, Stalin’s austerity program dislocated many segments of the population and made living conditions in general harder. One authority has speculated that in the early thirties the abortion-rate must have shot up even beyond that of the twenties, to the point where the population curve became alarming.

Some restrictive efforts were made. In 1927 one Soviet authority called attention to the spread of abortion among the country people and to the danger of depopulation on the farms. He wanted the government to stimulate motherhood. Efforts were made to discourage women from having their first pregnancy aborted. Physicians and social workers tried to dissuade women who could afford a baby from having it aborted. Almost none of the women being aborted was allowed any anesthesia. On the walls of abortoria signs were put up with slogans such as “Let this abortion be the last one.” And specimens of early embryos were displayed in glass jars so that women obtaining abortions would see how quickly development progresses in the early months of pregnancy.

Already in 1927 a meeting of Ukrainian gynecologists reflected hostility toward abortion among the medical profession; one observer regarded this meeting a a demonstration against legal abortion. In the early 1930s Russian medical sources began to report a multitude of serious side-effects—for example, sterility, loss of sexual desire, “pelvic disturbances,” ectopic pregnancies, and “hormone imbalance.”

In 1936 a draft decree was formulated forbidding abortion and “combating light-hearted attitudes toward the family and family obligations.” In an extraordinary procedure, this decree was submitted to the people for discussion before it was officially promulgated; some changes were made on the basis of the discussion and the decree appeared June 27, 1936, as a “Decision of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. and of the Council of People’s Commissars of the U.S.S.R.” over the signatures of Kalinin, Molotov, and Unschlicht.

The decree began with a prologue which neatly balanced references to Soviet women’s “emancipation” with references to her “great and responsible duty of giving birth to and bringing up citizens.” A significant paragraphs stated: “Back in 1913, Lenin wrote that class-conscious workers are ‘unquestionable enemies of Neo-Malthusianism, this tendency for the philistine couple, pigeon-brained and selfish, who murmur fearfully: ‘May God help us to keep our own bodies and souls together; as for children, it is best to be without them.’””

Yet pragmatically abortion had to be legalized to avoid worse evils while the last vestiges of exploitation and its consequences were being overcome. Now, the prologue continues, socialism has succeeded so well that welfare measures and provisions for “combating a light-minded attitude toward family and family obligations—such are the roads which must be followed in order to solve this important problem affecting the entire population. In this respect, the Soviet Government responds to numerous statements made by toiling women.”

Thus by popular consent and feminine demand, the law went on to lay out its program. Abortion was forbidden unless the pregnancy threatened the life or seriously threatened the health of the pregnant woman, or when a serious disease of the parents could be inherited. The permitted abortions had to be performed in hospitals or maternity homes by physicians. In other circumstances, both the abortionist and the woman herself were subject to criminal penalty; also anyone compelling a woman to undergo an abortion was to be penalized.

The decree increase state aid to mothers and provided special allowances for large families. Pregnant working women were given special job and income security (an exception to the equal-pay-for-equal-work rule). The network of maternity homes, nurseries, and kindergartens was extended. Authority over kindergartens was somewhat decentralized; they became adjuncts to factories or other places were the mothers would be employed.

Stricter administrative provisions were set down concerning divorce; how restrictive they would be in practice clearly would depend on administrative policy. The father of the children was held to contribute for their support from one-fourth (for one child) up to one-half (for three or more children) of his wages.

An official directive also was published listing medical indications and contra-indications for therapeutic abortion.

The decree prohibiting abortion introduced the prohibition proper with the phrase: “In view of the proven harm of abortions…” This suggests that the medical arguments had been a decisive factor. However, the Ukrainian gynecologists in 1927 had urged the substitution of contraception for abortion, and such a step would have solved many of the medical objections. However, when Margaret Sanger visited Russia in 1934, though she was pleased to see the emancipation of women, she was disappointed to discover that the paper plans for contraception were not resulting in practical programs. Mrs. Sanger asked the Secretary of the Comissariat of Public Health, “Has Russia a population policy, Dr. Kaminsky?” She felt that a country with five-year plans for agriculture and manufacturing should certainly have a birth control program. But the official rejected the idea: “There is no policy as to the question of biological restriction. For six years, we have had a great shortage, not only of skilled workers but of labor in general. Now the only question is the increase of population.”

Thus we see the explanation of the 1936 decree’s reference to Lenin’s remark about neo-Malthusianism. The Soviet policy was not aimed at feminine emancipation nearly so much as at the national interest. The birth control movement took an essentially individualistic and libertarian approach. The Soviet policy was more in the nature of controlling the production of an important economic factor—workers. Legalized abortion in 1920 turned off the population stream to aid industrialization. the prohibition of abortion in 1936, together with the other measures in that decree, turned the stream of population on again.

There are several confirmations that this, in fact, is what happened. As the Kinsey study observes, several sympathetic non-Russian observers suggested “that economic and political motives demanded a cut in abortions so that a higher birth rate could produce a larger labor force and more manpower for a future possible war.” A Russian refugee physician explained that “the government’s intention to increase the birth rate backfired.” Provisions had been made for handling more maternity cases, but many women had illegal abortions instead.

Most important, in 1939 the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom answered inquiries from the British medical profession with an official memorandum explaining the Soviet Union’s 1936 decree prohibiting abortions. Most of the memorandum summarizes the explanation given in the decree itself. But two added points concern population. The first notes that the birth-rate has increased since July 27, 1936, but asserts this was mainly due to prosperity and improved health. The final point in the memorandum is this sentence: “Subsidiary reasons for the abolition of the law of 1920 on abortion were to inculcate in the young a greater sense of responsibility both in regard to marriage, the bearing of children, etc., and to raise the birth-rate.”

It is difficult to say how effective the 1936 decree was. We have noticed already the refugee testimony that it “backfired” and the ambassador’s observation that the birth-rate had increased���not, of course, mainly because of the prohibition on abortion. Certainly at the time the draft decree was under public discussion, many who wrote letters published in Izvestia showed that they had adopted the view that abortion was one of an emancipated woman’s rights.

A girl who as a medical student complained of the housing situation and added: “In five years’ time when I am a doctor and have a job and a room I shall have children. But at present I do not want and cannot undertake such a responsibility.” A group of women on a collective farm wrote that conditions under which abortion was permitted should be stated so that physicians could not refuse a patient.

An engineer wrote: “The prohibition of abortion means the compulsory birth of a child to a woman who does not want children. … Where the parents produce a child of their own free will, as is well. But where a child comes into the family against the will of the parents, a grim personal drama will be enacted which will undoubtedly lower the social value of the parents and leave its mark on the child. … To my mind any prohibition on abortion is bound to mutilate many a young life.”

A research worker wrote: “[W]e all want to be ‘working women.’ The tribe of ‘housewives’ is dying out and should, I think, become extinct.”

Despite these attitudes, the 1936 decree was passed and criminal prosecutions of abortionists were carried on under its terms. The continuance of abortion was explained as a residue among the unenlightened of bourgeois consciousness. The Soviet Encyclopedia held that in other countries the poor had abortions through misery, the rich through selfishness. Governments outside the Soviet Union could not fight abortion by improving social conditions, and greedy physicians practicing non-socialized medicine performed abortions as a lucrative part of their practices.

However successful the 1936 decree may have been, a new decree was required. It was issued July 8, 1944, and began as follows:

“The Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. has issued an edict on increasing state aid to expectant mothers, mothers of large families and unmarried mothers; the protection of motherhood and childhood; and institution of the honorary title of Mother Heroine, the Order of Glory of Motherhood and the Motherhood Medal. The welfare of children and mothers and the consolidation of the family has always been one of the major tasks of the Soviet State.”

The decree explains that war conditions require the extension of state aid. A “Mother Heroine” title goes to women who have had and raised ten or more children; the other honors can be earned in various grades by mothers of somewhat fewer children. The decree also ends the parity between legitimate marriage and de facto unions, makes divorce more difficult, taxes single persons and couples with small families, and orders that certain existing laws—including that prohibiting abortions—be enforced.

In effect, this decree was a measure to step-up population growth in order to make up for war losses and to provide the population input needed for postwar expansion.

But other decisive shift was made November 23, 1955, when the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet passed another decree: “The Repeal of the Prohibition of Abortions.” The prologue to the decree argues that social and economic progress is so great that a law prohibiting abortion is no longer necessary; the encouragement of motherhood and educational measures are sufficient. Also, the repeal of the law will limit the harm done to women by abortions done outside hospitals. The final reason given was “in order to give women the possibility of deciding by themselves the question of motherhood.”

Thus, as the population input was to be slowed, the old appeal to individual freedom was used as a reason for a shift in public policy. Very little publicity was permitted for the new order, but reports indicated that in many cities abortion outnumbered live births. Some experts estimated that by 1959 the total annual rate of abortions in the U.S.S.R. ran over 5,000,000. In addition, one survey showed 21 percent of all abortions taking place outside hospitals. Many of these were illegal. A report indicated that 40 percent of women students at Moscow University had undergone abortions; a coed told an American visitor the true figure was nearer to 80 percent. Promiscuity was officially frowned upon—but economically desirable for female students, who supplemented small stipends. Abortions at the University clinic cost five rubles—one dollar at the U.S. rate of exchange.

In the population at large, lack of housing, inadequate care facilities, and too many or too close births were the chief reasons given by a sample of 26,000 women having abortions; about one-third of this group, however, simply did not want to have a baby.

We have considered the history of the Soviet Union’s legal provisions concerning abortion at some length. This history is significant because the 1920 law was unique in its time and as we shall see the Soviet experience was a model and inspiration for other efforts to relax the old laws against abortion. The old laws had been based on the inviolability of the life of the unborn child. The Soviet decrees were based on the requirements of society, although individual liberty and medical considerations also were given as reasons, and the latter undoubtedly played some role. The Soviet government’s style of policy-making in disregard of the right of the unborn to life has been perfectly consistent with its style of policy making in disregard of other human rights, including the right to life of persons already born.

Tomorrow I’ll excerpt a much shorter bit of Grisez’s history of Nazi abortion policies from the same historical moment.