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Increases in abortion restrictions in Russia spark outrage

A woman stands near a banner that says: "A prospective mother thinks: 'What do I do now? Will I be able to handle it? Where to find support?'" at a bus stop in St. Petersburg
A woman stands near a banner that says: "A prospective mother thinks: 'What do I do now? Will I be able to handle it? Where to find support?'" at a bus stop in St. Petersburg Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Saskia O'Donoghue with AP
Published on Updated
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The government's plan to restrict access to abortion as well as emergency contraceptives comes at a time in the conflict with Ukraine where women are increasingly deciding not to have children.

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Women in Russia are facing increasing restrictions on their abortion rights, and although the procedure is still legal and widely available, recent attempts to restrict it have touched a nerve in the increasingly conservative country. 

Although the banning of the procedure is merely a proposal for now, private clinics across the country have already begun to stop providing abortions.

Nationwide, the Health Ministry has drawn up talking points for doctors to discourage women from terminating their pregnancies. New regulations, too, will soon make many emergency contraceptives virtually unavailable and drive up the cost of others.

Russian activists are stepping up their game, urging supporters to make official complaints, circulating online petitions and even staging small protests against the potential change to the law.

Some in the country and internationally say the change is similar to the overturning of the Roe-v-Wade legislation in the United States last year.

“It’s clear that there is a gradual erosion of abortion access and rights in Russia, and this is similar to what has taken place in the US,” Michele Rivkin-Fish, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told the Associated Press.

Last year's US Supreme Court decision rescinded a five-decade-old right to abortion almost immediately reshaped American abortion policy, shifting power to states as opposed to central government.

Over the last 16 months, about half of all US states have adopted bans or major restrictions - although not all are currently being enforced due to a variety of legal challenges.

People light candles during an anti-abortion service in an Orthodox church in Vladivostok, Russia
People light candles during an anti-abortion service in an Orthodox church in Vladivostok, RussiaAP/File

In the Soviet Union - which came to an end in 1991 - abortion laws meant that some women had the procedure multiple times due to difficulties in obtaining contraceptives.

After the USSR's collapse, government and health experts promoted family planning and birth control, which saw abortion rates fall significantly.

Until Vladimir Putin came to power in the late 1990s, laws allowed women to terminate a pregnancy up to 12 weeks without any conditions. They were also permitted to abort up to 22 weeks for so-called ‘social reasons’, including like divorce, unemployment or income changes.

Early on in his leadership, Putin forged a powerful alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and chose to promote ‘traditional values’ while seeking to boost population growth.

It’s a position taken by many politicians in Russia.

Putin, left, meets with Health Minister Mikhail Murashko in July. Murashko has been criticised for condemning women for prioritising careers over childbearing
Putin, left, meets with Health Minister Mikhail Murashko in July. Murashko has been criticised for condemning women for prioritising careers over childbearingAlexander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Earlier this year, health minister Mikhail Murashko condemned women for prioritising education and career over childbearing.

Currently, abortion is only legally allowed between the period of 12 and 22 weeks in instances of rape.

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All women seeking the procedure - depending on what stage of pregnancy - must wait at least 48 hours or up to a week between their first appointment and the abortion, in case they reconsider their choice.

State-issued guidelines ensure they are offered psychological consultations designed to discourage abortions.

Health authorities have also introduced an online ‘motivational questionnaire’ which outlines state support if women continue the pregnancy.

In one region, clinics refer women to a priest before getting an abortion. Authorities claim the consultation is voluntary, but some women have told the media they had to get a priest to sign off to be given permission to go through with the procedure.

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With all those hurdles to jump over, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of abortions in Russia has fallen from 4.1 million in 1990 to 517,000 in 2021.

A woman holds a baby as she walks down a street in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023
A woman holds a baby as she walks down a street in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Increased restrictions in a time of war

The anti-abortion push comes as Russian women appear to be in no rush to have more children amid the war in Ukraine as well as economic uncertainty.

There are reports of a significant rise in sales of abortion pills since the beginning of the conflict in 2022 but a recent decree from the Health Ministry has restricted circulation of the medicines.

Mifepristone and misoprostol are used to terminate pregnancies in the first trimester. The decree puts the pills on a registry of controlled substances requiring strict record-keeping and storage making access ever more complicated for women in need.

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The move is also likely to affect the availability of emergency contraceptives - sometimes known as morning-after pills.

Three out of six brands available in Russia contain mifepristone in a low dose, meaning they'll be severely restricted once the decree takes effect in September 2024. Prices are also likely to shoot up due to the restrictions.

They will require a special prescription and many pharmacies won’t keep them in stock. Needing a prescription could mean women miss the time window in which to take the pills, which could result in an uptick in unwanted pregnancies.

The Health Ministry has not yet commented on whether or not they’ll exclude all morning-after pills in the decree but, if that does happen, Russian women may well be put into a very difficult position.

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FILE: FILE - Two pregnant women undergo an examination in a family planning center in the city of Yekaterinburg on July 23, 2003
FILE: FILE - Two pregnant women undergo an examination in a family planning center in the city of Yekaterinburg on July 23, 2003AP/URAL PRESS PHOTO

Changes at the top

Senior lawmakers are currently pushing for an outright, nationwide ban on abortion in private clinics. State statistics reveal that that’s where about 20% of procedures took place in recent years.

Conservative lawmakers have tried and failed to enact such a ban previously - but the Health Ministry now says it is ready to consider it.

Regional authorities are already succeeding in getting some private clinics to stop offering abortions.

Kaliningrad is mulling a region-wide ban and in Tatarstan officials say about a third of all private clinics no longer provide them.

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An online petition against the ban in Kaliningrad has gathered nearly 27,000 signatures.

In seven other regions across Russia, the Health Ministry is using another pilot project: having gynaecologists try to get women to reconsider having an abortion.

A document given to doctors with a number of stock phrases to use during abortion consultations includes phrases like pregnancy is "a beautiful and natural condition for every woman,” while an abortion is “harmful to your health and a risk of developing complications”.

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