Tacit consent for a 17-year-old’s “forced” marriage in Chechnya, apparent acceptance of bigamy and a recent attempt to roll back abortion rights show that those tasked with protecting women and children in the Russian Federation have put a skewed sense of tradition over their citizens’ actual health and welfare.
On May 19, Russia’s lower house of parliament submitted a bill which seeks to criminalize abortions that are conducted outside of state-run hospitals. The legislation would entail administrative fines of up to $4,000 dollars for private individuals, $16,100 for officials, and $50,450, (or a suspension of operations for 90 days) for companies that run afoul of the proposed law.
One stipulation, which reads that “the artificial termination of pregnancy funded by mandatory health insurance will be possible only in the presence of certain medical or social reasons,” has sparked fears the bill is the first step in banning abortions all together.
The legislation would be a massive step back for women’s reproductive rights in Russia, which was the first country in the world to permit abortions for any and all reasons in 1920.
According to the bill’s authors, the widespread availability (and broad public acceptance of the practice), is a threat to national security at a time of national crisis. The Russian Legal Information Society (RAPSI), citing state-run media agency Ria Novosti, claims experts estimate that 5-8 million abortions are conducted in Russia each year. That would be a massive figure in a nation of 143.5 million, though it appears to have been pulled out of thin air.
According to the government’s own statistics, the abortion rate in 2011 was 989,375, less than half the 2.11 million performed in 2001.
As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped over the course of the past 20 years, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination. That figure lies in stark contrast to the first decade after the Soviet collapse, when the number of live births amounted to half the number of terminated pregnancies.
The abortion rate, while still high by global standards, has clearly gone down without a need for government proscription. The Kremlin, however, seems reticent to use more effective and less intrusive measures to tackle the problem.
In December, for example, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov said sex education would never become part of the curriculum in Russian schools, claiming such classes would contravene the country’s morals and traditions.
Previously, he had rather quizzically argued that Russian literature was the best kind of sex education for teenagers, adding that schools “must raise children in chastity and with an understanding of family values.”
This, mind you, coming from someone who once warned that signing onto international agreements intended to protect children from sexual exploitation was the “first step towards the destruction of a child.” In his parallel reality, children being made aware of abuse so that they can hopefully identify it and possibly even prevent it is somehow more destructive than being molested in silence — just as actually being aware of sexual health issues that aren’t covered in Anna Karenina will endanger, and not protect teens.
It should come as no surprise that Russia’s grand defender of children has recently become infamous for justifying a middle-aged Chechen official’s decision to “forcibly” take on a second, teenaged-bride, arguing that in some parts of the Russian Federation, women “are already shriveled at age 27.”
In a further coup of irony, he washed his hands of responsibility in the matter, saying “the Constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal matters.”
So Astakhov, who once claimed there was an active pedophile lobby, does not want to get in the way of a 46-year-old man taking on a teenage-bride. But how does the fate of a teenage girl in Chechnya connect with the latest bill seeking to roll back abortion rights?
As it turns out, one of the conservative lawmaker behind the legislation not only concur’s in Astakhov’s belief that a powerful pedophile lobby is active in Russia, but she has also thrown her tacit support behind polygamy via the case of the Chechen teen.
“To criminalize [bigamy] is ridiculous, because the cause is not connected with an absence of criminal law, but rather the fact that there are not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children,” Ria Novosti cited Yelena Mizulina as saying.
Mizulina, who heads up the Duma’s Women and Children Committee, seems to believe that controlling abortion and allowing polygamy are the best ways to combat Russia’s demographics crisis.
But strangely, for a lawmaker so concerned with upping Russia’s birth rates, Mizulina has also strongly come out against surrogate motherhood, which she said “threatens not only Russia but all of mankind with extinction.”
How exactly surrogacy threatens the human race is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain: the women and children of Russia are clearly in good hands with such advocates.
Of course, in Russia, where all public politics is virtual, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; the stage-managed illusion from the actual policy. But as the proposed abortion bill shows, Russia’s current leadership is definitely holding true to the old adage that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, especially when “traditional values” can intersect with cost cutting measures.
And at a time when most economic sectors are facing 10 percent cuts and where healthcare spending is down 9 percent over the past two years, Mizulina argues that money saved from the state healthcare budget [for “unnecessary” abortions] will be used to support pregnant women in a tough life situation.”
How much money Russia’s austerity-ridden healthcare system could actually save by denying abortions seems nominal, and fails to take into account the cost shifting burden to the states already overburdened and drastically underperforming orphanage system.
But like so many things in Russia, to view this proposed legislation in light of its presumed function is to fall victim to the bait and switch. It was Mizulina, after all, who introduced the 2012 Russia internet blacklist law, ostensibly to protect children from harmful internet content, but which was later used as a tool to counter “extremism,” which is often a code word for the political opposition.
In Russia, the leadership has become deft at creating one boogyman as a smokescreen to attack the last remnants of civil society, or as in the case of limiting abortions, seizing on a legitimate social problem in order to create another mechanism of control. Victims of this approach, women or otherwise, are merely collateral damage.
So instead of empowering people through sexual education and teaching them about properly using contraception (which is to say, treating citizens like citizens and not subjects), the Russian state would rather put the fate of women’s bodies firmly in its hands, forcing further unnecessary government intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to a 46-year-old police commander taking on a teenaged-bride, well, sometimes a laissez faire attitude is needed to keep the peace.
In the end, the Kremlin is sidestepping real solutions to public health problems affecting society in general and women in particular for the same reason it has abandoned a 17-year-old girl to the wolves in Chechnya: the only thing that really matters to Russia’s leadership is doing whatever it takes to keep the power vertical in place.
That strategy might allow for self-satisfying diatribes on state TV rallying against the “decedent West’, but will do little to alleviate a country racked by crisis, demographic or otherwise.
And sometimes, the pageantry of sovereign democracy entails warping tradition to defend “traditional values”, just as the governments defenders of women and children ultimately have to leave those they are ostensibly advocating for by the wayside.