In Digest, Russia

By Karen Szymczyk, Russia Insider, July 14, 2015

Russia seems to be moving toward banning or restricting abortion. Karen Szymczyk warns this has already been tried in neighboring Poland to disastrous results

A new Russian agreement, with tighter restrictions on women seeking abortions, was signed between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Ministry of Health three weeks ago, on the eighteenth of June.

Svetlana Medvedeva and Patriarch Kirill

Svetlana Medvedeva and Patriarch Kirill

One steadfast cheerleader for this agreement has been Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana Medvedeva. Her anti-abortion campaign, “Give Me Life!” has been advertised heavily in a country where the top method for birth control is termination. Medvedeva’s ally in this move is the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

During a speech to the Duma in January, ROC Patriarch Kirill stated that, “The idea of absolutely prioritizing the value of free choice and of rejecting the priority of moral norms has become a slowly exploding bomb for Western civilisation”, calling the number of abortions in Russia “horrifyingly high”.

Laying the blame for abortions at the West’s feet, with its rejection of “moral norms”, may be convenient, even if it’s incorrect. The tendency for Russian women to choose abortion over other forms of birth control dates back to the Soviet era and was a cultural habit that women fell into, in lieu of other, more dependable methods of contraception.

As for the number of abortions in Russia being “horrifyingly high”, well, Mark Adomanis at Forbes has a more nuanced view. In 2012, Russian women were having 429 abortions per 1,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization. In Adomanis’ words: “Now this still means that Russians have, on average, about twice as many abortions per live birth as Western Europeans. That hardly seems a cause for celebration of self-congratulation. But, back in the early 1990′s, Russians had ten times as many abortions as West Europeans. There were many years where Russia‘s abortion rate was, by itself, substantially higher than the total birth rate [of] a developed country.”

If Patriarch Kirill wishes to rail against Western perversity leading to horrific abortion figures, he’s more than a decade late. As for Mrs. Medvedeva, Russia’s abortion rate was more than double its present rate when her husband was campaign manager for Vladimir Putin during the 2000 presidential elections. Why wasn’t anything mentioned then, if it’s such a horror? In light of this history, the extent and severity of the anti-abortion legislation must be seen through a different lens than that of plain demographics.

Analysis of the agreement

Before we get to that lens, however, it would be instructive to highlight some aspects of the agreement. (The full text can be read at the website of the ROC.) An English translation of the preamble reads as follows:

The Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation represented by the Minister Veronika Skvortsova Igorevna, acting on the basis of the Regulation on the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, approved by the Government of the Russian Federation on June 19, 2012 number 608, on the one hand and the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in the person of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill, acting under the Charter of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), on the other hand, together hereinafter referred to as the “Parties”:

Recognizing the scope of health protection one of the areas of cooperation between the state and the Church,

based on the need for joint efforts to ensure the solution of problems facing society in the field of health

Conscious of their joint responsibility to ensure the health of the people, promoting a healthy lifestyle,

taking into account the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the history of formation and development of Russian medicine,

Recognizing the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church in the life of Russian society and its ability to assist in providing the necessary assistance to the needy,

seeking to expand the capacity of health care through the involvement of the general public to participate in charitable activities and works of charity,

taking into account the need to respect the rights of persons undergoing treatment in medical institutions, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,

developing their relations in accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation on the principles of trust, equality, respect, mutual responsibility for the implementation of the agreements reached,

We have entered into this Agreement on Cooperation.

Twenty-one articles follow, encompassing the scope of cooperation between the Ministry and the Church, as well as some mechanics on implementation. Along with such fatherhood statements as “The Parties shall cooperate on issues of healthy lifestyle among the population of the Russian Federation” (Article 6) is the much more disturbing: “The Parties shall cooperate on the protection of maternal and child health, including reproductive health, promotion of family values ​​and prevention of abortion (Article 9).

The rest of Article 9 goes on to say: “The Parties shall promote cooperation of medical institutions with representatives of religious organizations of the Russian Orthodox Church in the prevention of abortion by:

  • creation of hospitals at crisis pregnancy centers with the participation of psychologists and representatives of religious organizations of the Russian Orthodox Church;
  • the participation of representatives of religious organizations of the Russian Orthodox Church in advising women who are planning to terminate the pregnancy, in medical institutions;
  • providing places for posting information of religious organizations of the Russian Orthodox Church on the stands in medical institutions.

“The Parties shall take part in joint efforts to provide assistance and support to pregnant women whose prenatal diagnosis as a result of infringements of the fetus, as well as mothers at the birth of a child with developmental disabilities.”

One wonders why it’s taken so long for Russian conservatives to get to this point. After all, the Soviet Union formally fell apart in 1991. What was the ROC doing all these years?


When a country is being attacked, it is natural that its people fall back on those beliefs that are more associated with societal cohesiveness. Unfortunately, most of the beliefs that laud social cohesion are conservative in nature. We are still chained by the prejudices and, yes, xenophobia of our forebears, no matter that we like to think we are now wholly rational beings.

An excellent example of this is the retreat of moderate Muslims into the arms of their more fundamentalist preachers. As someone who has visited and lived in a Muslim country many times over the past 25 years, the change in the attitude of the average “Muslim on the street”, from great tolerance to subtle distrust, has been stark and depressing. I haven’t liked this growing conservatism for a people I have great fondness for but, under the circumstances, I can understand it.

With regards to Russia, I believe we’re seeing something similar. As the country keeps getting pounded by the West—financially and psychologically—its citizens have found a “manifest destiny” conviction to cling to.

At the core of this conviction is the ROC. And, as situations become more bleak, people find greater solace in faith and ritual. As a result of this, the Church gets stronger and begins flexing its muscles, as recent pronouncements regarding homosexuality and, now, abortion have made clear.

There is also the other p-word to consider. Power. The bond between the ROC and Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, suits both extremely well. United Russia gets to leverage the largest faith organisation in the country, and the ROC gets instant respect. It’s a halo effect but, with Putin’s stratospheric approval ratings, one emanating from the secular towards the religious, rather than the other way around, as is traditional.

The problems

In the first instance, this move to criminalise abortions will backfire, and I say this because it’s been tried elsewhere and backfired there. The closest example to Russia may be Poland, also a religious Slavic people. There, the Roman Catholic Church tried the same thing that the Russian Orthodox Church and its allies are currently campaigning for.

The abortion debate was ignited in Poland soon after the fall of Communism, and religious and conservative elements succeeded in pushing through legislation limiting women’s rights. The law is still in effect, and outlines only three conditions under which women may legally obtain an abortion in Poland:

(i) if the woman’s life is in danger by continuing the pregnancy,

(ii) if the pregnancy was the result of a criminal act, such as rape,

(iii) if the foetus is clearly malformed.

In fact, this is much more liberal than Article 9 of the June agreement [in Russia], which takes termination option (iii) off the table completely, stating instead that the government-ROC coalition “agrees to provide assistance and support to…mothers at the birth of a child with developmental disabilities”. The restrictive laws of Poland led to an increase in back-room abortion clinics, abortion tourism to West European countries, and a growing resentment towards the Church.

Finally conceding that the laws to restrict women while leaving men open to put the business end of their biology wherever they wanted were impossible to effectively police, the Polish law has now fallen into a grey “don’t ask, don’t tell” area.

To compound matters, a recent court case involving a Polish doctor who refused to perform an abortion on a woman whose foetus showed clear genetic abnormalities—including a non-viable brain—indicates what happens when categorical legal decisions are laid down under imperfect, biological conditions. Despite the woman being perfectly within her rights to access a legal abortion, the doctor claimed “conflict of conscience” in denying her the operation. The baby was delivered with severe deformities and died soon after, traumatising both parents. If you read the Russian agreement, you’ll see many occurrences of the similar term, “freedom of conscience”. This is what it means.

It could be that the ROC feels it has nothing to be afraid of by endorsing such a repressive line. After all, it holds an exalted position within the Russian ecclesiastical pantheon. Although somewhat out of date, a table compiled by Dr. Katja Richters, professor at the University of Erfurt, Germany, in her 2012 paper on the ROC and Medvedev’s modernisation policy may prove instructive:

Number of registered religious organisations in Russia, 1990-2004:

                         1990              1996            2004

Orthodox       3,451              7,196           11,525
Muslim            870                2,494            3,537
Catholic            23                     183              248
Lutheran          88                      141             219
Buddhist          16                      124             192
Jewish              31                        80             267
Baha’i                  1                        20              20
Hare Krishna                                 9             112

We’ll come back to this table in a moment, but note that the ROC is able to teach its beliefs in state schools and send representatives to talk to the soldiers of the Russian Army, a privilege reserved only for the country’s “traditional” faiths (ROC, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism).

The ROC dominates the religious landscape which, as a whole, is increasing in significance ever since the start of the Ukraine conflict. That’s what the ROC has been doing ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: attempting to find relevance at a governance level.

Its current exalted status is all very well, but the Ukraine conflict—the genesis for all this rekindled religious fervour—won’t go on forever, and the hard line currently being pushed by the ROC and United Russia is bound to backfire. It’s only a matter of time.

There are two issues associated with this backfire. The first is the devolution of a complex political platform into a single issue. We’ve seen this play out in many countries, where stances on a variety of issues have been reduced to soundbite-friendly “pro-abortion”/”anti-abortion” labels. Trade agreements, military budgets, public service allocations, education standards–all get lost beneath shrill cries either for, or against, “the children”. If exhaustion sets in for the average Russian woman trying to earn enough money to sustain her family, we may find that she won’t say very much, but support for the Russian Communist Party may begin mysteriously rising at subsequent elections, as it did for the Social Democrats in Poland. After all, if a woman feels that the decisions she makes about her own body aren’t considered germane, what else about her won’t be considered germane either?

Secondly, by pushing this line, the ROC has set itself up for a conflict it had previously avoided. The current sanctions against Russia have acted as grist to the mill for those politicians who’ve long been calling for the modernisation of Russian industry, Dmitry Medvedev included (see his Second Address to the Federal Assembly, for example). It seemed that, at one time, the ROC agreed, as the July 2010 pronouncement of its Economics and Ethics Council illustrated: “Considering the economic modernisation of our countries as a moral imperative, without which the successful development of our peoples is impossible, the patriarchal Council…suggest[s] the preparation, moral education and timely promotion of qualified cadres in the spheres of public administration and the economy, without which the modernisation breakthrough cannot take place.” (Katja Richters, page 8 of her paper). Yet, anybody reading June’s agreement between the ROC and the Ministry of Health is bound to come away with a different opinion altogether.

The ROC and its political ally, United Russia, may feel secure with their shiny-new hard-line policies now, but the time will come when a public figure points out the inherent contradiction between innovation, modernisation and creativity on the one hand, and the rigid conservatism that seems to have taken the driving seat in the ROC-United Russia alliance, on the other. It could just be the opportunity the Communists are looking for to help catapult them back into the leadership position.

Coming back to Dr. Richters’ table showing the overwhelming dominance the ROC holds in Russia, it’s also theirs to lose, which may well happen if other faiths show themselves to be both more sympathetic to the issues facing women and families, the notion of modernisation, and the ideal of a better standard of living for all Russians, regardless of creed or sex.


It’s all very well to talk about the sanctity of life and the importance of preserving a family. But much more than lip-service and awards are required if concrete gains are to be made in that area. It may not take much to prevent an abortion, but it does take a village, and several sack-fulls of cash, to raise a single child, something that male clerics and well-off politicians know little to nothing about. The timing of avowed care for “maternal health” is suspect, coming more from a yearning for profane power than true sympathy for women.

The ROC may think it’s on a winning streak by riding United Russia’s—and, by corollary, Vladimir Putin’s—coattails at the moment, but a reckoning is in the offing. The ROC has itself created the framework for a future schism. And, when it happens, it won’t be pretty.

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