Repealing the Ban on Abortion

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Subject essay: Amy E. Randall (Santa Clara University)

In 1955 the Soviet government lifted its ban on abortion (which had been in place since 1936 after an earlier period of legalization). Official pronatalism informed this policy shift: Communist authorities and medical experts hoped to fortify the nation’s reproductive capacity because they believed that illegal underground abortion adversely affected women’s procreative health to a greater extent than legal medicalized abortion. Unlike the 1920 decree that had first decriminalized the procedure, the 1955 decree recognized a woman’s right to control her reproduction. But it also emphasized that preventing abortion — illegal and legal — remained a key government objective.

Public health officials and activists as well as medical experts and personnel were largely responsible for the antiabortion campaign that subsequently unfolded. Despite some regional differences, the campaign’s basic contours were the same: to emphasize the perils of abortion and spread pronatalist propaganda among the wider Soviet populace. Educational efforts targeted not only women’s medical facilities but also workplace and non-workplace settings, such as workers’ dormitories, schools, and various public venues. In 1956, for example, medical personnel coordinated over 20,000 antiabortion lectures and talks throughout the city of Tashkent. Journal articles and health pamphlets entitled “Don’t deprive yourself of motherhood” and “Abortion doesn’t happen without consequences” sounded the alarm about the procedure, as did posters, photo exhibits, the radio, and movies. The 1956 film, Why Did I Do That?, emphasized how ending a pregnancy could lead to irreparable harm by destroying a woman’s chances of becoming a mother.

Medicalized abortion was certainly not without danger in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the Soviet Union with its inadequate medical facilities. Educational strategy, however, was not non-partisan: the point was to discourage abortion by highlighting its risks and costs, even in misleading ways. Thus, even though health professionals and educators acknowledged that medicalized abortion was safer than underground illegal abortion — hence the change in abortion policy — they still described the procedure as dangerous or extremely dangerous. Chronicling numerous potential health complications, they characterized women as “victims” who had “to survive the severity of abortion” and its “frequent” adverse effects. Although international studies from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s indicated that medicalized abortion caused few serious complications such as inflammatory disease or infertility, the Soviet antiabortion campaign repeatedly emphasized the possibility of these dire consequences, and cautioned women against denying themselves the “happiness of motherhood.” By warning women that abortion-related infertility was linked not only to personal unhappiness but also to family unhappiness and the destruction of marriage, the campaign suggested that women who suffered this side-effect would lead lives of loneliness, lives without children orhusbands.

The antiabortion campaign evoked people’s fears in an effort to control them and bolster the regime’s pronatalist agenda. It also contributed to shifts in official discourse about the family, gender roles, and sexual norms. Whereas in the early Soviet years and Stalin era men were frequently eliminated or marginalized in representations of the Soviet family, particularly in the immediate post-WWII period when the government legitimized and endorsed “single-mother” families, during the Khrushchev era husbands and fathers began to figure more prominently. By representing abortion as a husbandly concern and fatherly matter, the antiabortion campaign helped to promulgate a more heteronormative family model and a new image of “responsible” husbands and fathers in the post-Stalin era which embedded masculine identity more firmly in the family. A 1962 antiabortion poster featuring the text “For you, comrade men” in the largest letters underscores the ways in which the campaign reenvisioned men’s roles in the reproductive sphere and the family. It also demonstrates how the regime sought to regulate women’s reproductive behavior via manipulative rhetoric rather than prohibitive laws.

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