Russia: Reproductive rights at risk and the anti-gender movement against the backdrop of war

Andrey RUSOV / Russian Defence Ministry / AFP

Russia – successor state of the USSR – has traditionally been liberal in its policies regarding abortion. However, the conservative direction taken by the State, along with the increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, has undermined Russia’s track record. In recent years, the anti-abortion movement, which claims to defend “traditional values”, has been gaining political ground against the backdrop of a so-called “demographic crisis”. From trailblazer in this regard to agent of dwindling rights on the domestic and international stage alike, Russia’s trajectory may serve as a model for better understanding anti-gender movements and thus how to tackle them.

A pioneer in abortion rights

In most countries, feminist movements had to fight for decades for abortion rights. But not in the Soviet Union. Women there were granted these rights in 1920, making the USSR – the forerunner of the Russian Federation – the first state in the world to legalise the voluntary termination of a pregnancy. Since then, Russian policies regarding abortion rights have swung back and forth between periods of tighter controls and liberalisation, according to the changing priorities of the regime. At the time of legalisation – when women had very little access to contraception, and therefore no reliable method of birth control – abortion became common practice. Abortion was once more made illegal in 1936, except on medical grounds. This decision, which was driven by the concerns of pro-natalists in the regime, triggered an increase in illegal abortions and maternal deaths. Then on 23 November 1955, abortion was again legalised in the USSR. The number of abortions rose sharply, before gradually decreasing after the collapse of the USSR. At this time, the legislation on abortion allowed women to terminate a pregnancy for any reason up to 12 weeks, or up until 22 weeks for a number of “social reasons”, such as divorce, unemployment or low income. The number of “social reasons” has, however, twice been reduced: once in 2003, when they were reduced to just four reasons (versus 13 previously), and again in 2012, when termination up to 22 weeks was permitted only in the case of rape victims. Abortion up to 12 weeks remained legal on any grounds.

A change of tone and increasing obstacles to voluntary terminations

One-fifth of abortions in Russia are performed in private clinics to avoid “psychological consultations”, obligatory since 2012, which aim to dissuade women from resorting to the voluntary termination of a pregnancy in state-run hospitals. Often, the consultation is provided not by a health professional but by someone who has undergone government-approved training. With the consent of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, the Orthodox Church has furthermore succeeded in infiltrating hospitals, where these “consultants” – funded by the St Basil the Great Foundation – exert their influence. According to the Foundation’s data, these counsellors have managed to convince between 15 and 20% of women to change their mind. Over the last three years, the number of such counsellors and “prevention centres” has tripled. The former Minister of Health, Veronika Skvortsova, was pleased with the 13% reduction in the number of abortions in 2016, claiming that more 39,500 women seeking an abortion had changed their mind. The Ministry of Health guidelines on psychological counselling before an abortion describe termination as the “murder of a living child” and label women who have unwanted pregnancies as “irresponsible”.

On 30 November 2023, the Legislative Assembly of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast proposed an amendment to the federal legislature to abolish abortions in private medical practices. Several oblasts – or regions – within the country have already adopted local laws of this kind. In oblasts such as Tatarstan, Chelyabinsk, Kursk and even the Crimea, which was occupied and annexed by Russia, local authorities have not adopted coercive measures, but they did announce that, following the consultations, private clinics “voluntarily decided” to cease performing voluntary terminations. Certain regions such as Mordovia and Tver Oblast even introduced penalties for “incitement to abortion”, imposing fines on those who provide information or services relating to pregnancy termination.

Another factor motivating women to go to private clinics is the choice of procedures. These clinics generally perform medical abortions, which are less intrusive and less painful than the surgical removal of a foetus, which is the procedure usually performed at State-funded clinics. However, a recent decree of the Ministry of Health has tightened control of abortion pills, which are used to terminate pregnancies in the first trimester. Under this decree, mifepristone and misoprostol, used in the pills, have been added to a list of controlled substances that are subject to strict registration and storage regulations. This measure will also affect the availability of emergency contraceptives, known as morning-after pills, which are taken three to five days after unprotected sex to avoid pregnancy. As of 1 September 2024, emergency contraception will require a special prescription and will not be available at all pharmacies. Specialists fear the development of a black market of illegal drugs being sold on social media sites, which would pose a health risk for women.

The Russian Church and its war on women

Banning abortion in private clinics and regulating abortion medication are some of the demands made by the Orthodox Church over a number of years. In November 2023, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, called for the adoption at federal level of a law prohibiting the “incitement” of women to an abortion. “This is a vast country, and our population is completely insufficient. We need more people”, he declared at the Russian Orthodox Church plenary congress on social ministries, adding that “the population can be increased with just a wave of a magic wand” and that “if we learn to dissuade women from having an abortion, figures will increase immediately”. Of course, there is no indication that a ban on abortion would have an impact on the birthrate. On 22 October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal passed a ban on abortions in the case of severe foetal abnormality, which accounted for the vast majority of legal abortions in Poland. Since then, the birthrate has been the lowest in the country’s history.

A climate of regression: domestic violence

Women’s rights in Russia are facing a series of attacks generally, reflecting a climate of regression in with regard to equality and autonomy. This is illustrated in particular by the partial decriminalisation of domestic violence.

While women’s rights advocates in Russia celebrated the adoption of the first law aimed directly at domestic violence during the summer of 2016, this victory was to be short lived. On 8 February 2017, with the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Duma decriminalised domestic violence that did not result in hospitalisation. From then on, first-time offenders who beat their partner or children no longer face criminal prosecution. Instead, as long as no “serious harm” is inflicted, and it occurs no more than once a year, the aggressors receive administrative penalties – a fine (equivalent to USD 500), community service or up to 15 days in custody. This change also implies that the burden of proof is on the victims, and that it is up to the victims to file a report. Decriminalisation is a return to minimising the gravity of domestic violence, which demonstrates a tolerance of violence in the home. By discouraging victims from reporting abuse and encouraging perpetrators to continue in their violence with impunity, such decriminalisation reinforces gender inequality and perpetuates a climate of violence and oppression towards women. In 2016, Senator Yelena Mizulina publicly declared that she believed that women “do not take offence when they see a man beat his wife” and that “the fact that a man beats his wife is less offensive than a woman humiliating a man”.

LGBTQIA+ rights threatened

It is not only women’s rights that are under threat in Russia; it is the alleged Western “gender ideology” that President Putin is targeting. In an address on 30 September 2023 to celebrate the annexation of four new regions in Ukraine, the Russian head of State denounced “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction”, like being able to “choose your gender”. Such are “characteristics of an inverted religion, of satanism, pure and simple.”

Although same-sex relationships and different types of gender expression are not explicitly prohibited by law in Russia, the legal system does greatly limit the rights of people whose gender identity or relations are not considered “traditional”. In recent years in Russia, three major laws have been voted in which are an attack on the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.

On 24 November 2022, a law was passed that imposed a “total ban” on “LGBT propaganda”. This legislation reflects a trend that began in 2013, when the State Duma, one of the chambers of the Russian parliament, adopted a law banning the spread of “LGBT propaganda” amongst minors. Although there have been few prosecutions under the 2013 law, it has sparked fear among LGBTQIA+ people and campaigners, encroaching on their free speech and encouraging media and institutional censorship on the subject.

On 14 July 2023, the State Duma approved a law to ban gender reassignment, both legally and medically, and to ban transgender people from adopting children or becoming legal guardians. This law also meant the annulment of marriages between people who have legally changed sex. Deputies of the State Duma claim that the measure aims to nullify same-sex unions which may have taken place after one spouse had changed gender.

Finally, on 30 November 2023, the Supreme Court of Russia declared the “international LGBT movement” an “extremist organisation”, jeopardising all forms of activism for LGBTQIA+ rights in the country. The first trial under this law – against two employees of an LGBTQIA+ club – took place recently behind closed doors.
The anti-rights movement in Russia, under the influence of US conservatives?

These attacks on the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people form part of a wider movement that classifies as an “anti-rights” movement. The expression “anti-rights” indicates a series of state and non-state actors who try to undermine the universality of human rights, of which the fundamental principle is that everyone has the same rights, with no exception. The anti-rights and anti-gender movement attack fundamental human rights, notably the universality of rights, using a number of strategies and always grouped under the generic term of so-called “gender ideology”, which is touted as a threat.

The Russian anti-abortion movements have largely copied the tactics of their American pro-life counterparts. Indeed, the St Basil the Great Foundation formed a partnership with the World Congress of Families (WCF), whose managing director, Larry Jacobs, went to Russia in 2012 to assist at a forum on family values. Larry Jacobs is the most prominent public face of the WCF. Founded in 1995 by Allan Carlson, Anatoly Antonov and Victor Medkov, the WCF has organised conferences and events across the world since 1997, under the guise of protecting the “natural family”. In actual fact, these gatherings openly encourage homophobia and transphobia. Since 2010, Larry Jacobs has frequently travelled to Russia and claims that he and the WCF played a significant role in the LGBT propaganda law being introduced, as well as other “pro-family” laws in Russia. Meetings between the American leaders of the WCF and Russian figures have contributed to the adoption of a common language centred around concepts such as “traditional values”. These “traditional values” seek to defend the “natural family”, children and the country, but are better defined in negative terms: they are anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-abortion rights and, more broadly, anti-women and minority rights.

“Traditional values” uniting the country against the “decadent West”

Waging a war against a “decadent” West, Vladimir Putin increasingly presents himself as the guardian of these “traditional values”, of an “eternal Russia” in the face of Western imperialism fostering the sin of corrupt modernity. It is a rhetoric emboldened after Russia’s wide-scale invasion of Ukraine. A war deemed necessary in order to extract Ukraine from the clutches of Western ideology eating away at its identity. During a joint press conference with Emmanuel Macron on 7 February 2022, Vladimir Putin declared, in reference to Ukraine: “Like it or not, take it, my beauty”. This aggressive and degrading rhetoric, which incorporates sexist and violent analogies derived from a pervasive culture of rape in Russia, is testament to the way in which the Russian regime uses traditional ideas of gender to justify its expansionist policies. By conflating the defence of the “traditional family” with the repression of minority rights, Putin’s regime seeks to legitimise its repressive actions both domestically and internationally. This strategy, which fits into the overall trend of human rights setbacks and a surge in reactionary ideologies, requires extra vigilance and international solidarity to defend the fundamental principles of equality, human dignity and liberty.

Russia is a unique case, caught as it is between an extremely deadly war, a falling birthrate that is causing panic for the authorities, and the disproportionate importance given to the Russian church, which acts as an ideological catalyst as much as an agent of control. However, the erosion of sexual and reproductive rights is part of a wider movement, one of attacks against women’s rights and so-called “gender ideology”, which can be seen in many other countries. They bear witness to the strength of the anti-rights and anti-gender movements – an organised reactionary movement that goes far beyond Russia.

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