Women’s reproductive rights are in grave danger in Russia
Russian current law guarantees the right of the woman to be in full control of her reproductive behavior. Yet in reality, over the last several years, this right has been slowly but steadily undermined in practice, and now the forces behind that have attacked the very right itself, seeking to change the current law dramatically.
By Russian law, the woman can ask for an elective abortion up until 12 weeks of pregnancy. Between 12 and 22 weeks, an abortion can only be made on the basis of medical or so-called “social” reasons laid out by the government. Over the years, the government had shrunk dramatically the number of reasons of both kinds, for instance, eliminating the right to perform a second-trimester abortion in case the parents are unemployed. This has been done under the pronatalist pretext, though in practice the share of abortions made for medical or social reasons has never risen much higher than 2% and 3% of all abortions, respectively.
It was not uncommon for some representatives in the past to sponsor legislation restricting women’s rights further. In this manner, it was proposed that doctors were allowed to decline performing abortions; that all abortions of married women require a permission from the husband; that all abortions were banned altogether, except in case to save the life of the woman. But those proposals all died early in the Russian parliament, most of the time at the level of the committee rather than by an up or down vote.
But this time it is different. A group of representatives has teamed up with a number of anti-abortion, anti-sexual education, anti-modern contraception activists, mostly coming from the Russian Orthodox Church, which carries a lot of political clout these days. Behind the closed doors, that commission has worked for a year and a half on measures to restrict women’s access to abortion which would take away some of her rights and give it to her “legal guardian”, the husband, and medical and government authorities; but at the same time the commission, judging from its members’ statements at Christian events, tried to not ask for too big changes in the current law all at once, even though its members have publicly announced their desire to get rid of all abortions in the country.
The measures proposed by the commission include the following:
- Married women will have to obtain a permission from their husbands to perform an abortion; teenage mothers, from their parents or legal guardians.
- A waiting period of one week will be instituted during which the woman seeking an abortion will have to endure obligatory “psychological consultations” (more on them below), ultrasound visualization of the embryo, and listening to the embryo’s heartbeat. The stated purpose of these obligatory procedures is to pressure the woman into changing her mind about the termination of her pregnancy.
- Such social reasons to seek an abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy as the husband’s death during the pregnancy will be eliminated, with the only remaining social reason being a pregnancy resulting from rape.
- Permission for doctors to decline performing abortions on their whim.
- Introduction of an informed consent form which warns women of serious risks associated with abortion.
Some of those measures, such as psychological consultations (even obligatory ones) or informed consent forms, do not sound so bad. But the devil is in the details. For both consultations and consent forms warning of serious risks, certain organizations, most prominently the program “Sanctity of Motherhood” headed by Natalia Yakunina, the wife of the head of the Russian Railroads, and Mr. Putin’s inner circle member, Vladimir Yakunin, have been already implementing such practices on the local level, after having negotiated with the local authorities. Their work has been recently fully endorsed by the Ministry of health and social affairs with support of Oleg Filippov (Deputy Director of the Department of medical care for children and maternity services), and adopted as the official policy which is been gradually implemented in the whole country just as we write. Here is how those practices look:
A woman seeking an abortion is required by the doctors to go through an appointment with a “pre-abortion psychologist”. Without the psychologist’s signature, an abortion is not performed. There exist methodical recommendations, prepared by Christian organizations and church officials, and now also fully endorsed by the Ministry of health and social affairs, for such “pre-abortion psychologists”. The recommendations say openly from the start that the goal of the consultation is not to help the woman to figure out what is best for her, but to force her to change her mind about having an abortion, by making her feel guilty of, the recommendations say, murder of her unborn child. It is discussed at great length how the psychologist should break the woman in order to force her accept the outcome desired by the authorities. The woman’s interests just never enter the picture, but phrases like “against her will” and questionnaires containing questions like “Do you know that abortion on any term is a murder?” and “Are you ready to meet the soul of your murdered child when you die?”, obligatory for filling in during the “consultation”, are all over the place in the recommendations, as well as citations from ideologues from the Russian Orthodox Church (which take the place of scientific references.)
It is extremely disturbing that such clearly unethical recommendations, written by people who actually perform such “counselling”, if one may call it thus, themselves were endorsed by the Ministry in charge of the nation’s health. It is not less disturbing that the psychological abuse of that sort is being performed already in a lot of places all over Russia.
With informed consent forms, it is the same story. The consent forms used on the local level in the regions whose practices the Ministry of health and social affairs is trying to copy in the whole country in one case looks like this:
“We are sorry that you are thinking about terminating your pregnancy! Medical abortion is an artificial termination of pregnancy. Abortion is the only medical procedure which is performed in absence of any diseases, and harms one’s health. There are no safe abortions.
Abortion not only causes the strongest biological trauma, it also causes a severe psychological trauma, which leads to personal and family tragedies.
Abortion may result in infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion, birth of weak, ill children. All those are long-term complications of abortion. Bleeding, damage to the cervix and uterus, peritonitis, sepsis, inflammatory and oncological diseases of ovaries, uterus, breasts – those are some of the near-term complications of abortion.
When you decide to perform an abortion, you do not only risk your health, but also cause irreperable harm to your soul.”
Clearly it has very little to do with informed consent forms as we know them. But one should not be surprised by the density of outright lies in it: such severe misinformation is common place among the people who “fight” abortions in Russia on moral and religious grounds. To give an example, we provide an extract from a leaflet by the “Give me a life” campaign, which has been run for the third year in a row this July by a non-profit headed by President Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana Medvedeva. This year, the campaign “Give me a life” had events in all 83 administrative units forming the Russian Federation.
“Abortion is the murder of an unborn child, committed by will of his parents or with their consent.
Abortion causes irreperable harm to the mother’s health. <…>
Abortion is dangerous because of the hormonal catastrophe which occurs when the miraculous natural mechanism aimed at bearing and breast-feeding a child is interrupted (that the mechanism started to work is certified by the failure to menstruate.) The hormonal catastrophe leads to cancer of ovaries and breasts (at any age.)”
What is the general situation with the ongoing assault on women’s reproductive rights? The church-influenced propaganda of the type exemplified above is already endorsed by the Ministry of health and social affairs, which has moved to implement the Chrisian-groups regional practices on the country scale. New “preabortion psychologists” are hired, with the goal of having one in every state medical institution dealing with pregnancy (in 2009, only 20% of such had such a “specialist”), and requiring every woman seeking abortion to go through that psychological abuse.
At the same time, the Russian parliament is debating the new version of the main health law of the country, to be voted on, and adopted in early September. (As the President himself has expressed his support for the law and suggested that it be adopted as soon as possible, it is highly unlikely that the parliament controlled by government will vote the law down.) The abortion amendments to it were proposed by a small group of representatives, but given how the situation is developing, they have a very big chance of passing: if they are included into the overall text, which is prepared by the health committee, they will likely be adopted with the law as a whole. And the health committee seems to intend to include a large part, if not all, of the amendments restricting abortions.
In early July, the health committee decided not to include into the text of the law all but two of the proposed amendments: namely, a 48-hour obligatory waiting period, without a mention of any obligatory “psychological consultation”, for those who terminate their first pregnancy, and permission to decline performing an abortion for doctors. But the church groups went furious, and together with the officials from the Ministry of health and social affairs (sic!) forced the head of the committee, Rep. Borzova, to change her position. First on July 22 Borzova declared that she had three meetings with the Russian Orthodox Church officials, and that the waiting period will be applied to all pregnancies, not just to the first, and that “psychological consultations” will be obligatory. Then this week on August 5, Borzova said that the waiting period will be extended to one week, that the only social reason to have an abortion after 12 weeks will be a pregnancy resulting from rape (but not, say, a sudden death of the husband, or imprisonment for the woman herself), and that informed consent forms will be required to include strong language suggesting severe harm from abortions. Since the representative has already changed her position twice to accommodate the demands of the lobbyists from the Russian Orthodox Church, there is no guarantee the other restrictions, including the requirement to obtain the husband’s permission to obtain an abortion, will not crawl into the law.
If adopted, the proposed changes to the current law will significantly limit women’s access to abortion, and will be likely to cause the rise of criminal abortions (which even under current, less restrictive law cause up to 5% of maternal deaths.) They will compromise the autonomy of women, and will be a major setback to women’s rights to exert control over their bodies and their lives.
At the same time the proposals do nothing to tackle the very real problems common in Russia. The authors of the proposed measures proclaim themselves defenders of “traditional Christian values”, and don’t hesitate to blame women seeking abortions as murderers, but they never even mention the role of those women’s partners. The proposals simply do not address the problem of reproductive violence, which is clearly serious in the country, but the exact rates have never been seriously researched. They do nothing to change the fact that Russian doctors, despite having access to the modern methods of performing abortions still do not comply with the recommendations of WHO, and, as a recent investigation by WHO experts has shown, often do consistent mistakes when performing the established procedures, leading to completely unnecessary complications for the women. The authors of the amendments do not even mention the prevention of unwanted pregnancies or contraception. In fact, many of them, especially on the church side, are strictly opposed to any modern methods of contraception, including all forms of hormonal contraception and IUDs. When trying to support their proposals with facts, they most of the time give clearly false data – which then are repeated over and over by journalists who do not know better themselves, and cannot learn the truth because the real experts are not welcome guests in the state-controlled mass media. The most ironical part is that while the advocates for stripping women of their rights claim they want to do it to raise the fertility rate, demographers know all too well that it is impossible to do so by restricting abortions. So all of the proposed dangerous measures are in a sense futile: they cannot help to avert the demographic crisis which is often cited as the main motivation for attacking women.
A number of Russian NGOs and grassroots groups, some of them formed by first-time activists with the sole purpose of fighting the proposed amendments, have mobilized to counteract the assault. We are working on trying to open the representatives’ eyes on the falsehoods spread by the proponents of restricting women’s reproductive rights, and convince them to not adopt the amendments. At the same time, a group of NGOs is preparing an alternative set of amendments, based on evidence-based approaches, which would address the real problems instead of imaginary ones, and help women rather than assault them.
But at this moment, it seems that we may be fighting a losing battle. The Ministry of health and social affairs is already working to implement the abusive, immoral policies developed by church activists. The Russian parliament is very likely, if the current trend continues, to add a significant number of the amendments restricting women’s rights and their access to safe and legal abortion into law to be adopted in the early Fall.
This is why we are asking for your signs of solidariry. Right now, the representatives are caught into a web of falsehoods carefully prepared for them by church lobbyists and a handful of self-described religious-activist legislators. We are trying our best to penetrate that web, return the debate onto the right track, and protect Russian women. But it can very well be that the domestic efforts will not be able to provide enough of a shake to change the situation in Moscow. There is a chance that a strong international outcry, strongly condemning the assault on women, will help to do so.
Any sympathetic publicity will be helpful. A strong declaration by a political body, even more helpful.
Please, save Russian women.
August 6, 2011
Members of the grassroots activist group “Fight abortions, not women”
Russian Pro Choice Coalition (site is expected soon, working blog)
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