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Op-Ed: What the U.S. can learn from Stalin’s abortion ban

Former Russian leader Josef Stalin
Former Russian leader Josef Stalin, pictured in Nov. 1930, made abortion illegal in the Soviet Union in 1936, sixteen years after the country became the first in the world to legalize the procedure.
(Associated Press)

As the right to get an abortion in the United States is whittled away, state by state and statute by statute, we can learn important lessons about the impact of its repression from the history of one country where it was first legalized — and then re-criminalized.

In 1920, Soviet Russia, which would become the Soviet Union in 1922, became the first country in the world to legalize abortion. In an unprecedented decree, the state noted that punishing women or doctors for abortion had “no positive results. It drives the operation underground and makes women the victims of greedy and often ignorant abortionists who profit from this secrecy.”

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, government leaders were committed to building a new society in which men and women would have equal rights and opportunities, full employment and free healthcare and education. Through new laws they established divorce at the request of either spouse, abolished the legal conception of illegitimacy and soon recognized cohabitation as the juridical equal of civil marriage. It was the most liberating legislation for women that the world had ever seen.

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The Supreme Court’s refusal to block the blatantly unconstitutional Texas law is a strong signal that it is poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Yet as progressive as the new laws were, Soviet leaders saw abortion less as an individual human right than “an evil” resulting from poverty and oppression. The reasoning behind the U.S. legalization of abortion was different: In Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that abortion was protected by “the right to privacy” implicitly guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Soviet leaders believed that once women were fully emancipated, they would no longer have any need for abortion.

Soviet women, however, did not share this perspective. They recognized that poverty and unemployment played a role in women’s decisions not to bear a child, but they also supported abortion for other reasons. Statistical data from the late 1920s show that typical abortion patients were not poverty-stricken, unemployed or unmarried. Women got abortions for many reasons: They wanted to continue their education, to work outside the home and to provide better care to the children they already had. As one jurist noted, women attempted to control their fertility less because of poverty than the simple wish “not to have a child.”

As millions of women entered the labor force during the industrialization drive of the early 1930s, Soviet officials became increasingly concerned about the impact of abortion on the birth rate, which fell from 45 births per 1,000 people in 1927 to 30 in 1935.

In 1936, Josef Stalin consolidated power and the state once again made abortion illegal. According to the new law, those who performed abortions could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Women who chose to abort could be subject to fines.

Unlike the recent efforts of U.S. states to restrict and criminalize abortion, the Soviet law outlawing abortion was accompanied by a vast expansion in child-care centers, maternity clinics, food supplements for children and stipends for mothers. Every employer was obligated to provide four months of paid maternity leave and provide pregnant women with lighter work at their former pay grade. Women in Texas, for example, where the SB 8 law has made abortion illegal after about six weeks of pregnancy, have no state-mandated support to help them or the children the state is forcing them to bear.

Are the conservative Supreme Court justices really as driven by personal belief, not legal grounding, as they seem? The depressing answer is yes.

Although Soviet women welcomed the additional benefits for mothers, they reacted angrily to the prohibition on abortion. Many wrote letters to the newspapers and to Soviet leaders protesting the prohibition of a practice they saw as essential to protecting their families and their participation in the wider world.

The law didn’t change, but it had little impact on either the rates of birth or abortions. The birth rate increased after the law was first enacted, but the increase lasted less than two years. By 1938, the birth rate again began to drop, and by 1940, it returned to its 1935 level before the abortion prohibition went into effect. And, by 1939, the abortion rate was higher than it was in 1926 when the procedure was legal. The death rate from illegal, botched abortions soared as women returned to the underground practices they had been forced to use before 1920.

In 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, abortion was once again legalized in the Soviet Union and remains legal in Russia to this day, although various nationalist organizations seek to criminalize it once again.

Women in the United States now face the prospect of losing the right to abortion guaranteed by Roe vs. Wade. Like their Soviet counterparts after Stalin’s decree, many will resort to illegal means, risking their health and their lives to terminate a pregnancy.

Women all over the world understand that without the ability to control their fertility, they cannot ensure their own well-being or that of their children. They cannot participate fully in the public sphere or claim an equal place with men. As governments continue to repeat the mistakes of the past when it comes to outlawing abortions, women will continue to suffer simply by pursuing their need — and what should be their right — to bodily autonomy.

Wendy Z. Goldman is a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of several books, including “Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936.”


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