Population loss through abortions in the 1960s to 1980s cost Russia more than double the number of lives it had lost in the First World War, the Civil War and the Second World War combined.
Although during the last five years, the number of abortions in the country has decreased, it has not yet made much impact on Russia’s population growth. To address the issue, the Health Ministry plans to focus on setting up crisis centers for pregnant women and providing them with psychological help.
During the Soviet Union, abortion statistics were classified information. When they were revealed in the 1980s, it transpired that the country was one of the world's leaders in terms of the number of pregnancy terminations.
According to research conducted by medical demographer Dr. Elizaveta Sadvokasova, in 1959 there was an average of about four abortions for each woman of reproductive age. At the same time, Sadvokasova pointed out, legalization of abortion did not lead to a complete eradication of back-street abortions.
In the 1960s to 1980s, the number of abortions began to decline, although it still remained very high at more than 4.5 million a year. According to prominent Russian demographer Veniamin Bashlachev, Russia's population loss through abortion during that time period was two and a half times the number of lives Russia lost in the First World War, the Civil War and the Second World War combined.
By 2011, Russian population stood at 143 million people, down by 5.7 million since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Experts contribute this population decline to alcoholism, bad food, lack of exercise, and liberal abortion laws the country had inherited from the Soviet Union.
In 2011, the Russian parliament passed a law introducing additional restrictions on abortions. However, it rejected restrictions proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church, such as a requiring a husband's consent for married women and parents' consent for teenage girls.
An initiative, which was put forward in November 2013, to remove abortion from the list of free medical services failed to win the support of the Health Ministry. Elena Baibarina, the head of the Health Ministry's Department for Health Care for Children and Obstetric Aid, explained that the ministry was concerned that the move might provoke a rise in the number of back-street abortions, which often result in maternal deaths.
In an earlier interview for RIA Novosti news agency, Baibarina said that the number of abortions in Russia was falling. According to data published in August 2013, there were about 50 abortions for each 100 births. In 2012, the total number of abortions was more than 900,000, or 49.7 for each 100 births.
"The number of abortions in Russia is going down. The 2008 figure was 1.2 million, while in 2012 it dropped down to 935,000. But it is still too high, which also contributes to infertility issues," Baibarina said.
She went on to add that a further decline in the number of abortions could be achieved through raising people's awareness and setting up help centers for women who have found themselves in a difficult situation and chosen to terminate their pregnancy.
"The Health Ministry supports the creation of crisis centers for pregnant women, where they can get professional counseling from social workers. We think that this is the most promising and humane way of reducing the number of abortions," she concluded.
The issue of legalizing abortions was first publicly discussed in Russia in 1913, when the Russian Medical Society congress passed a resolution saying it was unacceptable to prosecute a woman for terminating a pregnancy, and a doctor for performing an abortion at a woman's request.
Soon after that, Vladimir Lenin, published an article in which he called for "cancelling all the laws prosecuting abortion or distribution of medical literature about birth control." An abortion began to be considered a simple medical procedure, often inevitable for a working Soviet woman. On November 19, 1920, a law was passed making abortion legal. Thus, Soviet Russia became the first country in the world to legalize abortion, with other states making the move only 40 to 50 years later.
Together with state atheism and rejection of religion, the Soviet authorities in effect refused to recognize that their citizens could have a sex life. For a whole generation of men and women, sexual relations and other related issues became a taboo subject. Gradually that state of affairs resulted in that means of birth control practically disappeared: it was virtually impossible to find a condom. However, in the absence of any sexual education, millions of families with children often had no option other than to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.
"All women of my age have had one or two abortions,” said Olga Ivanovna, 62. “What else was there to do? Back then there was not much talk about God or sin. A far scarier thing was that the procedure used to be performed without anesthetics and for some reason, in a general ward. I still remember a row of wailing girls in gynecological chairs next to each other."
During the Soviet Union, abortion became practically the main means of contraception. A woman's right to have control over her body extended only to married women, whose sexual relations had been sanctioned by the state within the boundaries of a Soviet family. When it came to unmarried women, doctors went out of their way to persuade them to keep their babies and bring them up as single mothers.
With time and as Russia too became home to civil liberties and a sexual revolution, society's attitude to abortion continues to be quite complicated. As more people are turning to religion, this issue is developing an ethical aspect.
"I do not consider abortion to be an ethical issue, let alone a murder or a sin,” said another woman, Olga, 31. “Of course, abortion is an extreme measure and no-one is saying that it is good. But a woman must have a choice. The state should make sure that the procedure is safe."
Galina, 37, said she believed that abortion is a terrible sin that a woman will have to live with. “It is a great pity that many people just fail to see that there is a higher meaning to pregnancy."