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The “Right” to Control Her Own Body?: Soviet Women, Abortion and the State

By Amy E. Randall

During the Cold War era, many westerners considered the Soviet Union a repressive threatening entity, one that possessed nuclear weapons, issued military threats, enacted violence, repressed dissidents, and fostered alcoholism. Some took a more measured view; after all, this was a country that produced Sputnik as well as outstanding Soviet writers, musicians, and scientists. Moreover, the communist system provided basic (even if problematic) education, healthcare, and housing for its populace. The Soviet Union seemed marked by contradictions.

Figure 1. K. K. Ivanov, “Stop! Now abortion seems necessary, but remember: it might forever deprive you of the happiness of motherhood,” 1968. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.

As a college student studying the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, I considered the Soviet government’s reproductive policies an example of the state’s contradictions. On the one hand, the government legalized abortion in 1955, and allowed women the right to control their own bodies well in advance of Western capitalist countries. The communist regime thus appeared to confirm its commitment to women’s equality, and to protect women’s health, as women avoided the serious health consequences of illegal or self-induced abortions. On the other hand, the Soviet system didn’t provide its populace with adequate contraceptives, either in terms of quantity or quality. Consequently, women used abortion as a primary method of birth control, resulting in very high rates of abortion, and individual Soviet women often had repeat abortions.

From my outsider’s perspective, Soviet reproductive policies seemed far from ideal, and I thought it was terrible that women were compelled to use abortion as a chief method of family planning. At the same time, I thought Soviet women were fortunate to avoid widespread disdain and harassment by opponents of abortion, a problem that many American women confronted because of the actions of Operation Rescue and other antiabortion groups. In the 1980s (and then in subsequent decades), these groups protested outside of clinics and blocked entrances to reproductive health care clinics throughout the United States. Women seeking legal abortions were intimidated and harangued by antiabortion forces as they made their way to clinic doors; some were even harassed by antiabortion activists who tracked down their personal contact information and showed up at their homes. These activists also threatened abortion providers with extreme violence and carried out vandalism as well as arson and bomb attacks at clinics. After several unsuccessful murder attempts, abortion providers and staff were killed; in 1994, two different clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, my home town, were attacked by John Salvi, leaving two receptionists dead. Salvi’s actions struck home, literally, as these were clinics that I had gone to for reproductive health care as a young adult; in the early 1990s I had also worked as a counselor at another nearby clinic.

As I learned more about the Soviet Union’s legalization of abortions, I came to understand that although Soviet women seeking to terminate their pregnancies did not face an Operation Rescue, they faced a number of unique challenges.. First, women were often subjected to abysmal medical treatment and contempt by health personnel when seeking abortions. As a Soviet woman writing in 1980 explained:

If a woman has made up her mind to have an abortion, she is in for a “round of tortures.” It starts with the humiliation of the gynecologist’s exam, after which she must gather up her pile of papers for the coming execution, where she will be talked to with unconcealed scorn. …Then she must wait in line for an appointment. In a huge waiting room, almost without any light or air, women with worried and depressed faces sit on benches placed along the wall. They must sit for one and a half to two hours.

Thus, one hour follows another,… The abortion clinic on Lermontov Prospekt is a monstrous institution – a slaughterhouse, as women themselves call it. The treatment capacity of the clinic is two hundred to three hundred women patients a day.

In the clinic are huge rooms with ten to fifteen beds made up with flannel blankets. There are never enough sheets to go around, and the women must resort to various innovations in order to get by with just one sheet, by using it either as a cover or as an under-sheet. And all this takes place in a medical institution, where surgery is performed on people.… The women are put in lines in front of the operating room. Two and sometimes six women are operated on at the same time. The operating tables are placed in such a way that the women who are waiting can see everything that is happening to the women who have gone before them. They can see the faces distorted in torment…

There are two doctors and one nurse in the operating room. The nurse says, “Quickly now, quickly!” The woman, who is shaking from fear and worry, is perched on the operating table, her movements awkward and unsure. The doctor tells her irritably what position she should assume on the table.

Finally, the woman is arranged and the doctor begins the operation. Sometimes she is given a shot but she does not feel its effect, since very little Novocain is injected and not enough time goes by for it to take effect. Consequently, since there is no anesthetic, the woman experiences terrible pain. Some women even lose consciousness. The nurse, who is waiting on two doctors at once, does not have time to help the patient. With difficulty, the patient is “brought back to her senses” and then led from the operating room. She is left outside with the women still waiting their turn, who take her back to her room. There, the woman writhes in pain for an hour or an hour and a half; she is nauseated to death, and sometimes vomits. The next day she is signed out, without anyone examining her general condition. She is left to hope for the best.

Figure 2. A. Kazhdan, “Infertility and bitter loneliness are common consequences of abortion,” 1966. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.

Second, as my JWH article demonstrates, although the Soviet government allowed abortion, it still strongly disapproved of it. Hence the 1955 legalization of abortion was accompanied by a state-sanctioned antiabortion campaign. Health educators and medical personnel characterized abortion as a “serious evil” that could destroy a woman’s well-being – even deprive her of the ability to later become a mother. They emphasized the potential dangers of abortion in public health materials, in the media, and in one-on-one and group discussions, as well as in public lectures at various venues. According to these antiabortion advocates, women who became infertile as a result of legalized abortion might find themselves alone and unhappy, without families or husbands. Antiabortion propaganda claimed that infertility fostered marital discord, and in many cases, resulted in husbands abandoning their sterile wives to pursue their “fatherly instinct.”

Thus, instead of heckling by antiabortion protestors outside of clinics, Soviet women experienced state-supported intimidation by public health representatives and medical providers. To encourage women to pursue the “correct” reproductive choice – motherhood – pro-natalist propaganda was a critical part of the Soviet antiabortion campaign. As I researched the antiabortion campaign, I was struck in particular by the visual images that women confronted. In addition to numerous movies that highlighted the supposed tragedy of abortion, posters that appeared on the walls of women’s clinics and in public health literature provided graphic warnings about abortion’s “dire consequences.” The following messages were only some of the many that women received from such illustrations:

“Abortion doesn’t happen without consequences!”
“Abortion can lead to irreparable misfortune.”
“A first pregnancy abortion can forever deprive you of the happiness of having children.” “Abortion threatens infertility.”
“Don’t deprive yourself of happiness!”
“Abortion has dangerous consequences. Don’t condemn yourself to solitude.”
“Stop! Now abortion seems necessary, but remember: it might forever deprive you of the happiness of motherhood!” (See Figure 1)
“Infertility and bitter loneliness are common consequences of abortion.” (See Figure 2)
“Abortion will deprive you of the happiness of motherhood.” (See Figure 3)

Figure 3. V. A. Stepanov, “Abortion will deprive (you) of the happiness of motherhood,” in Zdorov’e (Health, a popular journal that reached millions of viewers), 1962.

How many Soviet citizens viewed these antiabortion images and read these slogans? Print runs of antiabortion posters from the 1960s ranged from 10,000 to 50,000. Women’s clinics were the main centers for out-patient obstetric and gynecological services in the 1960s. If even half of the 8,400 women’s clinics that existed in 1966 contained one or two posters, then a considerable number of patients, and those accompanying were exposed to them. While we might imagine that some Soviet citizens dismissed the posters, viewing them largely as pro-natalist Soviet propaganda, others might have been unsettled by them. A colleague of mine reported that in the early 1980s she went a couple of times with her mother to a women’s clinic so that her mother could get an abortion. She remembers being struck by the antiabortion posters on the walls, and after seeing them, feeling that her mother was doing something wrong. After seeing one poster in particular – which featured a little yellow chick about to be squashed by a big foot – she took “offense” at her mother. We might even speculate that the posters had the state’s desired effect of leading some women, already uncertain about the procedure, to continue rather than terminate their pregnancies.

When I first learned about the Soviet system’s failure to provide its population with adequate contraception, and the sub-standard medical conditions that women faced when seeking abortions, I assumed that women’s reproductive health care in the late Soviet years was a low priority for communist leaders. I still think this is true. But after doing research on the antiabortion campaign that accompanied the legalization of abortion in 1955, I now think that this contradiction of formal legalization and formal discouragement can also be understood as a product of the Soviet government’s pro-natalism. While the Soviet Union gave women the right to choose or reject pregnancy and motherhood, the pro-natalist antiabortion campaign is evidence of the state’s profound ambivalence about women’s choices.

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