MOSCOW — The United States anti-abortion movement has become a model for Russian activists, who have even adopted the English-language term “pro-life” as their own. American-style pickets of abortion clinics are becoming a staple of the movement in Russia.
The campaign is heavily influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is drawing on the tacit support of the first lady, Svetlana Medvedeva, and prominent politicians. The church, increasingly vocal on social issues under Patriarch Kirill I, draws on widespread fears that Russians may become an ethnic minority in their own vast country.
This week, politicians introduced amendments to a draft law in the State Duma that would place some restrictions on abortion. Rallied by dioceses across Russia, demonstrators marked International Children’s Day by distributing leaflets on dangers of abortion and releasing hundreds of balloons over Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birthplace, to support “Russia without abortions.”
Abortion was common and readily available in the Soviet era, championed by early 20th-century Communists in the name of women’s liberation. After the Soviet Union became the first country to legalize abortion, it was restricted by Stalin in his drive to increase the population. In the post-Stalin era, however, Soviet women sometimes had multiple abortions, either because they had little access to contraception or feared it.
Official statistics say 1.3 million abortions were performed in 2009 in Russia, in a population of just under 143 million and falling. Opponents of abortion and the morning-after pill, which they lump together, say the real number is much higher.
“The number of abortions in our country reaches six to eight million a year,” said Valery Draganov, who proposed more rigid anti-abortion legislation in the Duma last week that was hastily withdrawn, highlighting tension on the issue. “Every minute, two abortions are carried out in Russia. Due to botched abortions, 20 percent of families lose the ability to become parents. One in every five pregnant women who dies, dies as a result of abortion. These are catastrophic statistics.”
Some abortion opponents are more strident. A Moscow priest, the Rev. Dmitri Smirnov, said last year that women who have abortions should be jailed for murder and that women considering abortion should be advised “not to be worse than Himmler and Goebbels, who didn’t kill their own children.” Russian feminists condemned his remarks.
The amendments would institute a mandatory waiting period for abortions of 48 hours to one week, depending on how long the woman had been pregnant. They would also require women to sign a statement that they agreed to abortion after reading of possible negative consequences, including “the onset of infertility.”
Women over six weeks pregnant would be required to see their embryo or fetus on ultrasound, hear its heartbeat and have counseling. Another amendment would restrict sale of the morning-after pill.
Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma committee that proposed the amendments, said that Russians support a waiting period before abortions are granted but that for now only 25 percent favor eliminating state financing for early-term abortions. Late last year, at a forum, she was stridently against abortion.
That forum was convened by Sanctity of Motherhood, an organization led by Natalia Yakunina, the wife of Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful chief of Russia’s railroads, who has created several foundations to back the Russian Orthodox Church and to promote patriotism.
Speakers urged Russian women to have at least three children. The high birth rate among Muslims in Russia was spoken of with some awe, both as a threat and as something to emulate. A Russian Orthodox priest who has 18 children was showered with praise.
Mrs. Medvedeva, whose Foundation for Social and Cultural Initiatives promotes family values, spoke of Russia’s religious pluralism. But she also talked about the “rights of a child to life” and about “socioeconomic indicators” and general lack of support that she said usually drove women to “artificial termination of pregnancy,” carefully sidestepping the word abortion or saying outright that she opposes it.
“The state must help women keep their babies,” she said.
At a roundtable session, the vice president of Mrs. Medvedeva’s foundation, Tatyana Shumova, said: “Due to the nature of our foundation and the president of our foundation, we can’t say we’re against abortion, because we would immediately be accused of curtailing democracy and violating human rights, and everyone is free to choose.
“But we say ‘Give Me Life,”’ she said, referring to a foundation program to promote family values.
Days later, in his state of the federation address, President Dmitri A. Medvedev focused on Russia’s demographic crisis and proposed measures to lift the birth rate.
At the conference, Mrs. Yakunina said Sanctity of Motherhood was conducting a pilot program in Krasnoyarsk, an industrial city in Siberia, working with doctors and journalists to shift public opinion and women’s choice away from abortion. The abortion rate in Krasnoyarsk among women who had gone through the program dropped by 16 percent, she said, which if applied to Russia as a whole would mean 200,000 more babies a year, based on the official figure of 1.3 million annual abortions.
Russia’s anti-abortion movement is as yet small despite its influential backing and thus has not provoked a major outcry from weakly organized women’s groups. But it has created strange bedfellows.
Larry Jacobs, president of the World Congress of Families, based in Rockford, Illinois, attended the Sanctity of Motherhood forum and praised Russia’s new activists as allies. He has met with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow patriarchate’s department of external church relations. On a tour of the United States, where he was invited by Jerry Fullinwider, an oil executive who has done business in Russia since the 1980s, Hilarion highlighted a vocal anti-abortion stance as a uniting factor between Russian Orthodoxy and Protestant evangelicals. He has said they should form a “strategic alliance” with Roman Catholics.
Under Patriarch Kirill, the church has embraced evangelical tactics as it reaches out to Russians who are nominally Orthodox but rarely churchgoing. In addition, the anti-abortion oratory familiar in the United States has found fertile ground in Russia. Graphic Web sites, posters and leaflets are supplemented with sweeping references to Russian history. An international anti-abortion meeting will be held in Moscow this month with Mr. Jacobs's group. A brochure features blurbs by Mr. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on the need to raise the birth rate.
There is increasing support for restricting abortions along lines suggested by Patriarch Kirill earlier this year, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the patriarchate’s department on church and society relations, said at a news conference at RIA Novosti, an official state news agency.
“It’s clear that society’s attitude toward this phenomenon is changing, and I think that we have all we need so as to change radically society’s attitude toward abortion, so that abortion would become absolutely morally inadmissible and this would be reflected in politics and law,” he said.