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Abortion in Russia: No Big Deal

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Sergei Elsen

There may be no sex in Russia, so goes a Soviet urban legend. And somehow,
with abortions outnumbering live births nearly 2 to 1, if you're a Russian
woman and never had one, you're a statistical non-entity.

The women I spoke to - stoic, intelligent matrons obviously with other
things on their minds besides talking their husbands into using condoms -
took it for granted that they had friends who'd chide them with "I've had
thirty abortions already, what's the big deal?" when they had to make that
trip to the clinic.

And, according to one gynecologist who has been practicing for 45 years,
there was certainly no reason to blanche when a girl told you that "I'd
rather just have abortions than not have satisfying sex."

Western media - like the Washington Post - put Russia at number three for
its abortion rate, just after Cuba and Romania. Conservative think tanks
like the Rand Corporation are more blatant: Russia has the highest abortion
rate in the world.

Statistics, like women, are fickle; and yet whatever numbers you look at,
the rates are staggering. According to a compilation from the Demographic
Yearbook of the European Council and an analogous Demographic Yearbook by
the United Nations, Russia is the only nation in the world where abortions
consistently outnumbered live births by a ratio of about 2 to 1. In 1970,
for example, there were 1.9 million births and 4.8 million abortions. Today,
with more access to real contraceptives, that number has decreased: for
every live birth there are between 1.3 and 1.5 abortions, depending on the
statistics you look at.

Ask an average woman, or a health organization, or a gynecologist, and the
excuses are all pretty much the same: lack of apartment space, no money to
raise children, no decent contraceptives, etc.

The problem is that each of the "excuses" - communism, small apartments, no
money, no contraceptives - are by no means unique here. Russia still tops
the list by far for abortion rates across Soviet republics. China, with its
one child policy and often mandatory abortions? At its highest rate in 1983,
there were only about 16 abortions for every 19 live births.

Romania, which some sources say has a higher abortion rate than Russia? The
former communist state had an astounding rate for a couple of years in the
1960's: when the ratio reached 4 abortions for every live birth. But in the
following decades, the rate leveled out, and there were generally fewer
abortions than live births.

So is a lackadaisical attitude towards abortion just another attribute of
the "enigmatic Russian soul?"

Many journalists writing on the issue are just dying to come out with it and
say that Russian women are whores. But they hold back at the last minute,
and leave it with a more subdued "culture of silence" among generations of

"You couldn't discuss sex the way I was brought up," says a pensioner. "It
was just wrong. To ask your husband to wear a condom was unheard of in the
first few years of marriage."

The problem is, every time one tries to take a kinder, gentler approach to
the issue and attribute the sexual health problems to a poor economy and an
indifferent government, the statistics bare their teeth and the anecdotal
evidence gets ever more depraved.

Sergei Elsen

While Inga Grebeshova, of the Russian Association for Family Planning, says
that the Soviet Union did not produce oral contraceptives, other women had
it otherwise.

"I had a friend who was a real skank," one woman, who has been married for
35 years to the same man, told me. "And she used the pills and didn't
understand why we were getting abortions."

But those "pills", Grebeshova says, had high doses of hormones and weren't
even intended as contraceptives in the first place. Real oral contraceptives
appeared only in the early nineties.

But today, with oral contraceptives readily available at every pharmacy,
they still remain one of the less popular forms of birth control. And not
just because they're expensive: a part of the population is still "biased" -
or superstitiously afraid - of anything hormonal, Grebeshova says. Abortion
for many women just seems the safer, more familiar thing to do - even
though, according a report from the Rand Corporation, complications from
abortions are behind more than one in four maternal deaths.

So if Russian men shudder at the thought of wearing condoms, and women are
traditionally suspicious of anything remotely resembling hormones ("they're
afraid to get fat, so they'd rather have abortions," a younger woman said)
what about other forms of birth control? Sponges? Foams?

"My husband and I shared our room with our son," one older woman said. "Do
you know what happens to that foam afterwards?"

One would think that communism, which made Russia the first country in the
world to legalize abortion in 1920, was responsible for instilling women
with an obvious disgust about their own bodies.

But even that is too simple. "Yes, I was ashamed to say 'put on a condom,'
so I opted for abortions," the woman says - even though, as a biologist, she
knew their danger.

"But the Soviet Union had nothing to do with that. It was just bad
upbringing." Upbringing that she says went back for generations. And even
Soviet culture, insisting on a woman's "freedom" from man, was powerless to
eradicate one little thing: that having a man was still the top priority in
a woman's life.

"What's a little abortion if it makes him happy?" says a pensioner,
recalling the attitude of many of her friends. "After all, it's source of
pride, if I'm married, and you're not."

Demographic statistics may answer why a relatively developed country still
has an almost medieval attitude towards relations between the sexes: after
World War Two, for example, Russia had one of the lowest male to female
ratio in the world. Today, there are still not nearly enough men to go
around, with the life expectancy of a man (at 58) nearly 15 years lower that
for a woman.

Cut the supply, and the demand increases.

But back to the enigmatic Russian soul. A couple of years ago, I asked one
of my editors about this economic paradox. "Sex for a Russian woman must be
spontaneous. Desperate. Because if it's not, then it's not real love."

Even if sex didn't exist.