In his view, Russia's Patriarch Kirill has found the solution to the problem of the shrinking population: if abortions stopped, the population would grow again "as if with a magic wand." And his attitude has consequences for the women of Russia. In some regions, abortions in private clinics and access to the so-called “morning after pill” are already being restricted. Health authorities are urging doctors at state clinics to stop women from having abortions.
Activists see this as part of a larger campaign. "When a country is at war, it usually leads to this kind of legislation," said Russian feminist Leda Garina, who lives in exile in Georgia. These measures sent a clear message to women: "Stay home and give birth to more soldiers."
The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to decriminalize abortion in 1920. The Kremlin is now gradually moving closer to the Orthodox Church's anti-abortion line. Russia is trying to deal with its demographic crisis, further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, by questioning the right to abortion.
President Vladimir Putin himself has proclaimed himself a champion of the extended family – in the name of traditional and patriotic values. Putin said last week that he is against banning abortions entirely, but abortions are against the state's interest. He wants pregnant women to “protect the life of the child” in order to “solve the demographic problem.”
For years, the president has been trying to motivate his compatriots to have children through financial incentives, as Russia's population has been shrinking since the 1990s. The war in Ukraine has given the problem a new dimension.
The Kremlin sees this "as a question of national survival," says political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya from the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. For Putin, any resistance to the government's positions on social issues is a Western plot. "This now also applies to abortions. They believe that it is the West's plan to convince women to abort their pregnancies and thus worsen Russia's demographic problem."
Last month, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, called on authorities to make abortions more difficult. Since then, more than a dozen regions have begun banning or at least restricting abortions in private clinics. Private clinics primarily administer the abortion pill and ask fewer questions, says demographer Viktoria Sakjewitsch.
Years ago, state clinics introduced counseling sessions with pregnant women in which they tried to convince women not to have an abortion. But the Ministry of Health's latest recommendations to the medical profession go further. It's about stopping women "from putting pressure on them, from scaring them," says Sakjewitsch. Some regions have even offered a bonus for doctors who prevent women from terminating pregnancies.
According to Sakjewitsch, if private clinics were now banned from performing abortions, a "gray area" of facilities could emerge that pay for abortions. This would hit low-income women hardest, whose share of abortions is the highest. She fears a black market for abortion pills and possibly even back-alley abortions.
So-called pro-life activists used to be a fringe phenomenon, but the war created a political environment in which more radical initiatives emerged, explains Stanovaya. Putin's own political camp is divided on the issue. Some men in the government support the new measures, but the most senior politician, Valentina Matvyenko, warns of "tragic consequences."
Observers fear that the latest development could be just the beginning. “We have to prepare for more bans, more restrictions,” emphasizes Sergei Sakharov, a Russian demographer at the University of Strasbourg. For example, abortions could be removed from state health insurance, as the church is demanding.
According to political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann, the debate is intended to give Russians something to talk about before the next election in March, since they "cannot talk about the war or the economy." Politicians are tackling the demographic problem from the wrong end, says Schulmann. "They should address the deaths of young men, which are the main reason for the shrinking population, instead of encouraging women to have more children." But talking about men's life expectancy is taboo while Moscow sends hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Ukraine.