The Strategic Savvy of Russia’s Growing Anti-Abortion Movement

The Strategic Savvy of Russia’s Growing Anti-Abortion Movement

The Strategic Savvy of Russia’s Growing Anti-Abortion Movement

Russia’s anti-abortion activists have found success by using the fear of demographic decline to sway both church and government officials.


Maria Studenikina fidgets with a laptop for a few minutes before beginning her presentation. Standing in front of the audience in a white blouse and blazer, she conveys an almost cherubic quality. As she outlines the goals of Save Life (Spasi zhizn), the charity program she helps coordinate, she speaks softly into a microphone, enunciating her words in the fashion of a zealous schoolteacher. “The main goal of our program is a reduction in the number of abortions by getting women who intend to terminate their pregnancy to refuse the procedure, and to provide social and psychological help to motivate them to backtrack and save the life of the child.”

It’s a grey and sticky summer day, and the staunchest representatives of the Russian anti-abortion movement have convened in Moscow for the For Life (Za zhizn) festival, an annual gathering of Russian activists and international guests involved in the global fight against abortion. By its end, these participants will formally agree to turn For Life into an umbrella organization, consolidating the power of the almost 400 anti-abortion entities that took part.

More than two decades have passed since the first generation of anti-abortion groups emerged in Russia in the 1990s. Before that time, most Russians didn’t consider abortion a sin or crime. The Soviet Union—atheist in orientation—first welcomed the practice in the name of revolutionary values and subsequently accepted it as an unavoidable reality. After the USSR’s collapse, newly established anti-abortion organizations could count on financial and technical support from Western Christian groups seeking to expand their crusade beyond their own national borders. But in recent years the Russian anti-abortion movement, while still willing to collaborate with outsiders on a global scale, has grown louder and more independent.

Having joined forces with the Russian Orthodox Church, anti-abortion activists have become a pervasive force with a clear agenda: saving Russia from demographic decline, one baby at a time. And even though their ultimate goal—a ban on abortions—remains unlikely, these groups have found new pathways toward expanding their influence, particularly by exploiting the weaknesses of Russia’s medical establishment and forging partnerships with federal and local authorities.

What Studenikina’s program, For Life, primarily does is provide support to pregnant women in need at “crisis centers” across the country. Like anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in the United States, Russia’s facilities attempt to help pregnant women in a way that seems to forward a political agenda. The facilities provide counseling and other support—including temporary accommodation and job training—to pregnant women in need of help. Across Russia, some are managed by subdivisions of the church, while others are run by private charities. Activists often explain that the services are much needed given the difficulties endured by many Russians amid the country’s enduring economic crisis.

Studenikina serves as the director of Moscow’s Mom’s House (Dom dlya mamy), one of such crisis centers. The facility is located right across the street from a 17th-century Russian Church, and I am meeting her there a few weeks after For Life. As I enter the center and sit down in a room with Studenikina, my eyes immediately lock in on the icon adorning the room’s otherwise empty wall. Old Cyrillic letters in gold identify “Mlekopitatel’nitsa,” the nursing Madonna. A teapot, boxes of chocolate candy, dry biscuits, and freshly picked chanterelles sit on the living room table alongside a carefully placed little plastic doll. The doll looks to be a reproduction of an unborn fetus, and as Studenikina speaks, her hands wander toward it.

Her sentences are full of diminutives. She speaks of mamochki (little mothers), detushki (little children), rebyonushki (little babies). “Sometimes the decision to preserve the life of a baby—to have an abortion or not have an abortion—is based on the fact that [these women] don’t have any means or lack support,” she says. “It’s very important that, at that moment, there are people to tell them: ‘We will help,’ and ‘There are no obstacles that you can’t surmount.’ When we talk to the girls, we offer exactly this kind of help.” While they may indeed offer help, the center also tells pregnant women that abortion can result in a “kind of damage” to their health and future fertility. “Not having an abortion is a defining moment in the life of a woman, a fundamental choice. When a girl makes the right choice, we simply gaze at it in wonder and rejoice for our little mothers and the saved lives,” Studenikina adds, smiling.

The work of these centers has garnered praise from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009. In September 2015, Kirill—who has overseen the church’s transformation into an active partner of the Russian government in shaping the country’s political and social life—expressed his intention to ensure that all dioceses “be equipped with shelters for women who, after finding themselves under difficult circumstances, did not get an abortion and gave birth.” The many Russian Orthodox Church initiatives focused on “family values”—the centers being just one—have received unequivocal endorsement from the Kremlin. As Vladimir Putin’s third term has taken an increasingly conservative and nationalist turn, the protection and consolidation of the traditional nuclear family has consistently been the strategy shaping the rhetoric of politicians and anti-abortion activists alike.

Notably, the church and anti-abortion activists both cite the country’s pessimistic demographic forecasts—projections by the Russian government predict birthrates could decrease from 1.8 million in 2016 to 1.3 million in 2050 in a worst-case scenario—to bolster their message. Putin and the patriarch both have highlighted the urgency of reversing a demographic decline brought about in large part by 20th-century wars, economic turmoil, and social dislocation.

The fact that Russia’s political elite and clergy now find themselves on the same side is a somewhat remarkable development, considering that they have been in opposition to each other for most of the past century. During his 2015 visit to the State Duma, Kirill—the first head of the church to address parliament in modern Russian history—proclaimed that cutting the number of abortions in half would ensure a stable and powerful demographic growth. “One of the main evils in Russia remains the high rate of abortions,” he told a receptive audience.

* * *

In 1920, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to legalize abortion, at a moment when the ideas that had fueled the Bolshevik Revolution were still strongly felt by the ruling cadres. But beginning in the Stalin era, the belief that a large, growing population would signify the success and superiority of the Soviet model became widespread, and the procedure, which had become a common form of family planning, came under new scrutiny. Fearing that the population would wither away, the government banned abortion in the 1930s, but failed at curbing nationwide reliance on the practice. Surveys revealed that the ban simply pushed women to terminate their pregnancies illegally, often in life-threatening and unsanitary conditions outside Soviet hospitals. Soviet authorities, accordingly, reversed and re-legalized abortion in 1955.

After its reinstatement, abortion once again became accepted practice, but the government, haunted by grim demographic forecasts—studies revealing a decline in the overall fertility of the population— gradually became more vocal in its calls for Russian women to reproduce and fulfill their role in the Soviet society as mothers. After World War II took the lives of 27 million soldiers and civilians, instilling such message in the country’s collective consciousness became particularly urgent.

During the economic and social turmoil that accompanied the Soviet Union’s collapse, abortion remained commonplace, but birthrates tumbled. In many cases, families simply could not afford to have babies. In 1995, 1.4 million babies were born, while 2.2 million people died. Even after Putin ascended to the presidency in 2000 and Russia’s economy started to recover, more Russians were dying than being born. Only in 2013 did the balance shift, with the birthrate overtaking the mortality rate by a small measure.

The Russian government—often rebuked for its strong authoritarian tendencies, illiberal policies, and centralized structures—has been surprisingly careful in negotiating its relationship with anti-abortion groups. So far it has brushed aside calls for changing legislation radically, but things might be changing as the anti-abortion movement becomes more organized and directs its efforts beyond crisis centers and towards politics. On April 30, for example, For Life, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, collected signatures in support of a ban on abortions at various churches across the country during Easter mass. The organization has reported that 50,000 people signed the petition that day. Hoping to raise the issue with the authorities, For Life continues to advertise the initiative on its website and through public actions.

Tatyana Melnikova, who works in the Labor Ministry, thinks it’s unlikely that Putin’s government will ever take steps to forbid abortions across the country. “The practice shows that when a ban is enforced, the birth rate doesn’t grow considerably, and it’s simply the number of illegal abortions that goes up, plus the criminal cases against doctors for their underground activities,” she notes, adding, “What is more, women still find a way [to get abortions], leading to a very high rate of birth-related deaths.”

The government’s approach to abortion legislation was fully on display when Duma deputies Elena Mizulina and Sergey Popov proposed a draft bill that would have both banned abortions in private clinics and removed them from the list of services covered under Russia’s national insurance system, except in medically necessary situtations. Introduced in May 2015, the proposal lost momentum a few months down the line, after receiving negative reviews from Russia’s Health and Justice ministries, and it looks likely that the bill is destined for failure.

Still, the rise of Putin has at least cleared the way for a few legislative changes aimed at limiting the practice. Without ever taking a strongly anti-abortion position, the Russian president has won over a large segment of the population by casting himself as a defender of conservative values and traditional families. Given views on abortion among the population at large, this calibrated approach makes sense. The Levada Center, an independent polling organization in Russia, revealed that 66 percent of Russians believe that decisions on matters related to abortions should be left to the individuals involved. Only 3 percent of those surveyed were in favor of a full ban on abortions.

Reemerging fears about the country’s demographic decline have fed the growing movement against legal abortion. In 2003, the government imposed the first restrictions to the law regulating abortions since Stalin, most notably eliminating the right to second-trimester pregnancy terminations for reasons of social vulnerability such as unemployment or lack of housing. In 2006, Putin declared Russia’s decreasing population a national-security threat. Since then, the Russian government has promoted a series of initiatives aimed at encouraging population growth, mostly through incentives and benefits for large families. The so-called “maternity capital” program, which began operating in 2007 and was recently extended until 2018, awards financial bonuses to women giving birth to two children or more. In 2011, Putin allocated an additional 1.5 trillion rubles (at the time, $53 billion) toward improving these demographic-focused initiatives. A January 2012 law stipulated a mandatory waiting period called a “week of silence” (nedelya tishchiny) before a woman could go through with an abortion. Late last year, after opposing the bill that would have ended insurance coverage for abortion, Russia’s Health Ministry introduced a bill of its own that proposed requiring that women seeking an abortion have an ultrasound scan, making, in their words, “visualization of the embryo and its heartbeat” mandatory. The proposal is currently under consideration by the Russian government.

After struggling to adjust to the new world order in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and later embracing Russia’s status as a renegade under Putin, many Russians appear committed to the belief that only a large population will guarantee their country’s return to self-sufficiency. Now, as Russia veers further away from the West and the tone of its interaction with the United States grows more confrontational, nationalism and patriotic sentiment have given further momentum to initiatives aimed at ensuring a growing Russian population.

Patriarch Kirill and Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova have signed a cooperation agreement identifying abortion prevention and “the promotion of family values” as main spheres of joint activity for the church and the government. The document details a plan for action that includes the creation of additional crisis centers for women, and the dissemination of information provided by the church in state-run medical centers. It also calls for the participation of representatives of religious organizations associated with the church in providing counseling to women seeking an abortion.

With the kind of rather unspecific and vague language—particularly about the kind of information being provided—that lends itself to multiple interpretations, Kirill and Skvortsova’s agreement provides anti-abortion groups ample legroom to utilize it in a way that is conducive to their goals. The agreement formalizes the anti-abortion movement’s implantation in the country’s medical system, which has been a primary political objective since at least 2007, when the local representatives of two Russian Orthodox organizations implemented a pilot program in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

Activists there shifted focus from broadcasting public-service announcements and holding demonstrations to providing counseling to women visiting the local health clinics seeking to terminate their pregnancy. Working alongside the local government, the activists were able to place 12 psychologists in local women’s-health clinics.

The Krasnoyarsk experiment was the seed from which the countrywide Sanctity of Motherhood (Svyatost’ materinstva) initiative, a national program devoted to the fight against abortion, blossomed. Today, signing cooperation agreements with local governments, often including the training and placing of psychologists in women’s-health clinics across the country, remains among the primary initiatives of the program. Such agreements have been implemented in Vladimir, Kirovsk, and Tatarstan.

By identifying the effectiveness of pre-abortion counseling in helping anti-abortion activists fulfill their agenda, Sanctity of Motherhood has created a template for other organizations. This February, an anti-abortion center, part of Save Life’s network in the region of Kaluga, announced that collaboration between the Health Ministry and the local diocese had successfully reduced the number of abortions. The joint work among the center’s psychologists, the diocese, and three women’s-health clinics in the region had succeeded, convincing 98 women to bring their pregnancy to term, the center said on social media.

In 2007, the Health Ministry mandated the creation of offices providing social and psychological support to women in need in all women’s-health clinics across the country. Three years later the ministry issued a series of guidelines on pre-abortion counseling, recommending the practice in the newly established offices, based on the positive results of the Sanctity of Motherhood experiment in Krasnoyarsk. The document highlighted the importance of saving the life of every child, even those who had not yet been born. “One of the main tasks that the specialists of the office face,” the guidelines state, “is the realization of measures aimed at abortion prevention, the counseling on matters related to the social protection of women who turn to them seeking an abortion, and the formation in the women of an awareness of the necessity of childbearing.”

Sonja Luehrmann, an anthropologist researching the Russian anti-abortion movement, notes that the state’s inability to cover the costs for the centers has led to deeper collaboration between anti-abortion groups and state-run health centers. “The maternity clinics are now required to have psychologists on staff, and often this counseling, but no additional funding has been allocated to them to actually pay for these psychologists and hire them,” she says, “The clinics are now happy to have some outside organization pay for the psychologists or help train the psychologists.”

Aleksandr Gatilin, an activist who serves as spokesperson for the two anti-abortion organizations that have joined forces with the government in Krasnoyarsk, echoes Luehrmann’s assessment, adding that, while the Health Ministry expects the funds for the counseling to come from regional budgets, the regions often do not have sufficient funds. Gatilin claims that Sanctity of Motherhood trains its psychologists to “lead the way to an independent decision” by advising women on the consequences of both pregnancies and abortions. Critics of the organization like Lyubov Erofeeva of the Russian Association for Population and Development argue that a bias exists in their counseling methods and that they are manipulative in nature.

As part of her research, Luehrmann has interviewed psychologists working at various women’s-health clinics. In her mind, the issue goes beyond the psychologists employed by anti-abortion groups; psychology is a relatively young profession in Russia, and the “pro-life” ideological bent she has observed in many facilities she attributes in part to the lack of clear professional standards, in addition to the influence of anti-abortion forces. “People talk about transmutation of souls and lineage destinies, and things like that, and incorporate that into their psychological analyses,” she added.

Aleksey Fokin, an anti-abortion activist who works as a psychologist in one of these clinics, confirms Luehrmann’s point. When we meet, he tells me that he sometimes intercepts women in his clinic’s lobby, pulls them aside, and asks them their reason for being there. They may have come to discuss terminating their pregnancy with a gynecologist. By identifying them quickly, he gets to them before they have a chance to see a doctor and is able to relay misinformation about the consequences of abortions.

As a young, devout Christian in medical school, Fokin struggled to reconcile his faith and his professional life. “I have personally witnessed abortions. I cannot forget how it was, what it was like,” he said. “I didn’t perform them, but I saw them, and didn’t like what I saw. I still remember it. Seventeen or 18 years have gone by, and I still remember where that was, how it was.”

Melnikova, the state official, spoke of the work of the crisis centers as a useful tool in reducing Russian women’s reliance on abortions. Even though the government’s position on matters concerning women’s reproductive rights is measured, Melnikova praises the work of the centers. As she notes during our conversation, the country’s demographic strategy remains focused on lowering abortions, after all. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, which lists the prevention and reduction of abortions among its priorities, has endorsed various social policies aimed at discouraging abortions, including pre-abortion counseling. “We know that if a woman has made her decision already, she will still go ahead with it,” she says, “so persuasion is the only way.”

Demographics are central to the rhetoric and strategy of Russia’s anti-abortion activists, but experts disagree on the impact that abortions have on Russia’s demographic trends, and the urgency of combating the country’s population decline is unclear. Nadezhda Azghikhina, a journalist I met in Moscow, is dumbfounded by how much she hears people talk about demographics in relation to abortion. “What do we even need a large population for? To send it to war?” she asks rhetorically, concluding, “To turn women entirely into bio-matter for the creation of a labor army is not a new idea.”

Pavel Krotin, director of a St. Petersburg medical center, agrees. He notes that safe sex among young adults is becoming more common. The number of abortions dropped from 1,675,700 in 2005 to 930,000 in 2014, according to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service. But despite the lack of conclusive evidence on a correlation between abortions and the projected demographic decline, equating the two in service of fearmongering is increasingly acceptable in Russia.

“Abortions carry within themselves destructive consequences. Families are shrinking; every year millions of people are not born,” Studenikina said as we sat in the tiny living room of Mom’s House. “If new people are not born, the nation will soon die out.”

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