Anti-Abortionists Breach a Wall of Silence

With graphic brochures and buttons proclaiming that "abortion stops a beating heart," several hundred activists from Russia, Europe and the United States will gather Wednesday for a conference devoted to an idea rarely heard in Russia -- that abortion is murder. The dawning of the anti-abortion crusade seems almost inevitable in Russia, where there were 3.5 million registered abortions in 1992 and official statistics show that the average woman has 4 to 5 abortions during her lifetime. Due to shortages of contraceptives and scant sex education, abortion has become the primary form of birth control for Russian women. But it has never been widely discussed in Russia as a moral or religious issue. "Even the Russian Orthodox Church, which is officially opposed to abortion, doesn't really speak about it," said Galina Seryakova, the president of Pravo Na Zhizn (Right to Live). "But gradually, the mentality is changing. We have broken the wall of silence." A volunteer group, Pravo Na Zhizn is co-sponsoring "Love, Life and Family," Russia's first major anti-abortion conference, at the Central House of Tourists. Other sponsors of the three-day conference are the Moscow Patriarchy and Human Life International, a U.S.-based organization devoted to educating people "about the evils of abortion." Pravo Na Zhizn, which opposes abortion in all circumstances, is also opposed to all contraceptives. Yet the 1,000-member organization, which lectures in schools and medical centers and distributes anti-abortion literature, does not plan to organize the kind of aggressive demonstrations characteristic of the abortion debate in the United States. For Human Life International, Russia was a natural outgrowth of work in Lithuania and Poland, said the Rev. Matthew Habiger, the group's president. But Russia represents a different challenge than Poland and Lithuania, both strongly Catholic countries. "Obviously the problem is a very large one here. They need all the help they can get," said Habiger, whose lecture at the conference is titled "Contraceptives Lead to Abortion." "If we put good, hard, reliable facts in people's hands, normally they'll come to the right conclusion." Abortion has been legal in Russia since 1920, when the Soviet government became the first to make abortion available on demand. But from the beginning, Soviet abortion legislation reflected the government's desire to control population rather than any moral agenda or belief in individual rights, according to Andrei Popov, the director of the Transnational Family Research Institute/Moscow, which studies abortion. The Soviets legalized abortion as a way to destroy traditional family and religious life and increase the number of women workers, he said. But in 1936, when the birthrate had dropped dramatically, Stalin banned abortion. What followed was a dramatic rise in the number of illegal abortions, Popov said. In 1955, abortion was legalized again, although the government refrained from developing other birth control methods and continued to discourage use of the birth control pill, he said. Today, the prevalence of abortion in Russia has prompted even activists who support legal abortion to work to lower the abortion rate. "Yes, that is one of our goals, but through entirely different methods from," the anti-abortion groups, said Lyudmila Kamsyuk, the deputy director of the Russian Association of Family Planning, an affiliate of Planned Parenthood International."We want to achieve this through contraceptive availability, family planning and sex education." Seryakova, of Pravo Na Zhizn, said the group's primary goal is to change women's consciousness about abortion rather than to push for an immediate ban. "Russian women are surprisingly spiritual," said Seryakova. "More than European women they feel guilty about having abortions. They have no facts that the fetus is a person, but they feel intuitively, in their soul, that they've done something wrong." Popov, of the Transnational Family Research Institute, expects the anti-abortion crusade to be embraced by political, nationalist and religious groups that will see opportunity in exploiting the issue. Though he supports legal abortion, Popov said he sees a positive side in the emergence of the anti-abortion movement in Russia. "The 'pro-life' movement can help prompt a shift from an abortion culture to one where family planning is based on contraceptives," he said. "It may also spark a serious discussion of reproductive rights, which has never happened in Russia."