Abolition of Legal Abortion

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

On May 26, 1936 the draft of a law “On the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood” was published in Soviet newspapers with an appeal for public discussion of its contents. The draft included measures aimed at “combating light-minded attitudes towards the family and family obligations,” tightening restrictions on divorce, and increasing the prestige of mothers of many children. Expressing trends in official attitudes towards these issues that reflected a major shift from the more liberal marriage law of 1926 (which itself had replaced even more radical legislation dating from the early 1920s), these measures attracted relatively little controversy. But despite the announcement in the draft that the network of maternity homes and childcare facilities would be enlarged several fold, the range of opinion concerning the prohibition of abortion and the forcefulness with which such opinions were expressed in letters published by the press was quite extraordinary.

The previously existing law “on the Legalization of Abortions” dated from November 1920. While referring to abortion as an “evil” and calling for propaganda to combat it, the law asserted that to protect the health of women abortions would be performed “freely and without any charge in Soviet hospitals.” By the mid-1930s, official concerns about a declining birth rate as well as the aim to strengthen the family unit as a bulwark of social stability doomed the old law. To Stalin, giving birth was “a great and honorable duty” which was “not a private affair but one of great social importance.” Henceforth, Soviet women would carry the double burden of holding a job in the wage-labor force and working in the home raising children. The draft decree proclaimed that “only under conditions of socialism, where … woman is an equal member of society … is it possible seriously to organize the struggle against abortions by prohibitive laws as well as by other means.” It permitted abortions only in cases when the continuation of pregnancy threatened the life of the pregnant woman.

Opposition to the proposed legislation came from many quarters but was particularly prominent among young urban women. Their objections typically were not based on a woman’s right to control her body but rather on the impossible strains that bearing and raising children would impose on their pursuit of a career, on available living space, and other quotidian concerns. Except for minor changes, however, the draft was approved by the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars and went into effect on June 27, 1936. The number of officially recorded abortions dropped sharply from 1.9 million in 1935 to 570,000 in 1937, but thereafter began to climb, reaching 755,000 in 1939. Despite criminal liability for performing illegal abortions, the actual number was probably a good deal higher. It is also worth noting that according to the People’s Commissar of Health, the rate of infant mortality rose from 146 per thousand newborns in 1935 to 162 in 1938.

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