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Vol. 75/No. 29      August 8, 2011

Bolsheviks were first to
legalize right to choose
Unlike the privileged bureaucrats and wannabe capitalists who govern Russia today, the Bolshevik Party, which led the workers and peasants of Russia in carrying out the October 1917 revolution, recognized abortion as a woman’s right.

Writing in 1913, at a time when the procedure was illegal everywhere in the world, Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin demanded “the unconditional annulment of all laws against abortions or against the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures.”

The Bolsheviks were equally opposed to pressuring, much less compelling, women to have an abortion or use contraception as a means of population control—thus denying women the right to make their own decisions about bearing a child. This course, still pressed by “zero population growth” advocates today, was already popular among bourgeois and middle-class “reformers” in Russia early in the 20th century.

In the 1913 article, Lenin commented on press accounts of a medical conference where some argued paternalistically that limiting births eased the oppressive conditions of workers and peasants in tsarist Russia. One cynical participant exclaimed: “We have to convince mothers to bear children so that they can be maimed in educational establishments, so that lots can be drawn for them, so that they can be driven to suicide!”

Such an outlook was “depressed and cowardly,” Lenin replied. If only “there were fewer children to suffer our torments and hard toil, our poverty and our humiliation—such is the cry of the petty bourgeois.” But what about bearing children, Lenin asked, in order “that they should fight better, more unitedly, consciously and resolutely than we are fighting against the present-day conditions of life that are maiming and ruining our generation?”

Acting from the very first days after the 1917 workers and peasants victory, the young Soviet republic took steps to advance the fight for women’s economic, social, and political equality. By 1920 it had become the first country in the world to wipe laws outlawing abortion entirely off the books.

This working-class-led struggle for women’s emancipation ground to a halt in Russia in the later 1920s, following Lenin’s death. A petty-bourgeois layer in the Soviet government and Communist Party, led by Joseph Stalin—acting to defend their own material privileges at the expense of workers and peasants—began to carry out counterrevolutionary policies that reversed Lenin’s proletarian course both at home and abroad.

The Stalinists began taking back gains won for women, oppressed nationalities, and working people as a whole. In 1936 Stalin outlawed most abortions, as a measure to increase the population. These privileged social layers said women had no right to refuse “the joys of motherhood.” It was a patriotic duty to help expand the toiling population. Hero mothers, give birth in order to increase production!—that was their reactionary cry.

Such state-enforced motherhood was uncompromisingly opposed by exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, who, since the mid-1920s, had waged a political battle to continue carrying out Lenin’s course. Condemning a top Soviet judge who sought to rationalize denial of a woman’s right to choose by arguing “We have need of people,” Trotsky replied:

“Then have the kindness to bear them yourselves,” might be the answer to the high judge of millions of toiling women, if the bureaucracy had not sealed their lips… . These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels women to abortion, and not force her into the “joys of motherhood” with the help of foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life. (See “Family, Youth and Culture” in Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, published by Pathfinder Press.)

Abortion was once again legalized in 1955. But the Soviet government, with its eyes still on the birth rate, refused to develop safe, effective contraception so women wouldn’t have to resort to the procedure. As a result, most women have multiple abortions during their child-bearing years. Since the regime gives no priority to providing sanitary clinics, abortions often lead to infection or infertility.

In her 1990 book Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, author Francine du Plessix Gray reported what she had learned from interviews with doctors, women, and others in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The Soviet Ministry of Health had only recently ended its refusal to make birth-control information available, she discovered. In Tbilisi, Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union, a doctor told Gray that only 18 percent of Soviet women used some form of birth control, and only 5 percent used the pill or IUD.

Illegal abortions proliferated alongside legal ones, Gray learned. And conditions—from hygiene to anesthesia procedures—were abhorrent for most women, especially workers and peasants. The rate of injuries and deaths was high.

Gray interviewed factory worker Olga Lipovskaya, who had already had seven abortions and described conditions in a Leningrad clinic. After standing in line outside the operating room with other women, she said, “Then it’s your turn, and you go into a hall splattered with blood where two doctors are aborting seven or eight women at the same time … if you’re lucky they give you a little sedative, mostly Valium. Then it’s your turn to stagger out to the resting room, where you’re not allowed to spend more than two hours because the production line, you see, is always very busy.”

Far from alleviating such “abortion-mill” conditions, the moves by the current Russian government to now restrict access to the procedure (see article above) are just another swing in its decades-long course of denying women’s right to control their own bodies. It is the negation of Lenin’s statement nearly a century ago that class-conscious working people must demand “the unconditional annulment of all laws against abortions or against the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures.”
Related articles:
Protests set out to keep abortion clinics open
Moscow, to boost births, targets right to abortion  
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