Margaret Sanger, "The Soviet Union's Abortion Law," Dec 1936.

Source: " The Woman Today, Dec. 1936, pp. 8, 30 Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections S71:0874."

For additional copies, see Library of Congress Microfilm 143:707A and Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Collected Documents Series C16:396.

The Soviet Union's Abortion Law

by Margaret Sanger

Russia was probably the first country in the world to give official sanction to abortion. By so doing it courageously faced a world wide evil, and took the first ethical and scientific step, so it appeared, in solving it. For the greatest danger in abortion, when it is forbidden, is that women must place their lives in the hands of quacks and submit to unhygienic conditions at a time when all the safeguards of science should be at their disposal.

However, even when Russia enacted the law permitting abortions, providing that they must be performed under scientific and hygienic conditions by physicians in hospitals, it was recognized that this method of family limitation was a tragedy at best. Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, writing in 1920, pointed out that it is only bitter necessity that compels a woman to give up motherhood. “We need only see the agitated and sad looks of the women who have had abortions,” she said, “to understand the price which a mother pays to obtain freedom in this way. Those who seriously want to remove these nightmare questions of child murder and abortion must work constantly to build up the new life where motherhood will occupy its proper place.”

The Russian law sanctioning abortion had three objectives: to safeguard the lives of women by placing this operation in qualified hands, to control population, and to free the individual woman for other work. Over and above these objectives it carried out, logically and fearlessly, the Soviet idea of granting to every woman the power of individual choice as to whether she should or should not have a child.

But birth control, i.e., the prevention of conception, is unquestionably preferable to abortion, the destruction of the foetus after conception has taken place. It is preferable for both physical and psychological reasons. No woman who has submitted to an abortion, even when performed under the most ideal conditions, can fail to be aware of her weakened physical condition, of a sense of guilt or profound and bitter depression. She has halted the forces of nature in mid-channel, and nature is exacting her price.

Thus it seems strange that Russia sanctioned and provided for abortion first, and birth control second, as a sort of after-thought. Birth control was initiated, according to statements by Dr. W. Lebjedewa of the Research Institute and other authorities, as a means of combating the spread of abortion, not as another and better method of controlling population.

The new law on Abortions and Aid to Mothers is at once a reversal of the earlier libertarian philosophy and a seeming contradiction within itself. Coupled with clear cut and adequate provisions for state aid to mothers and children, in the form of maternity allowances, confinement care, nurseries, kindergartens and so on, is a section forbidding abortions except for therapeutic reasons, that is, when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the life or threatens serious injury to the health of the pregnant woman.

The government provides for the woman’s care in her career of motherhood to a degree which puts other countries to shame. It provides her with all she needs save the most important thing--knowledge of how to plan and space her children, and the right, if she wishes to exercise it, of not bringing a child into the world.

Why this reversal in attitude, this contradiction? According to the Russian records, there has been very small loss of life from abortions under the former more liberal policy. Hence the change cannot have been made to check maternal deaths or as a health measure in any form.

During my trip to Russia two years ago, I found that very little actual clinical birth control work was being done, though posters and printed literature proclaimed its value. Supplies were inferior and almost non-existent, and methods at present recognized as the most reliable could not be used for lack of manufacture of importation of materials. American physicians visiting Russia since that time bring back reports indicating that these conditions have not changed much for the better.

The Soviet government has understood the problem. Why did not Russia develop its birth control program, and make this method of control as effective and well organized as the opportunities for procuring abortions?

I seek for an explanation of the forces behind the new law. At the beginning of the Soviet regime, women were taken out of their homes and put into industry, because all available adult labor was needed to build up the country. Women were needed as workers more than as mothers. Hence every available help was given them to avoid and postpone motherhood when they wished to do so. Today, after almost two-score years, the Russian regime rests on firm foundations, and the first major objectives have been achieved. The Soviet government no longer acutely needs women as laborers. It passes now into a second phase where women are needed as mothers. Their usefulness to the state is greater in the field of reproduction than in the field of industry. Hence the new law which provides every incentive for the career of motherhood, in the shape of adequate care for mother and child, and at the same time clinches the matter by making it difficult to avoid childbearing.

If this be the explanation of the new law, it is understandable but nevertheless a step backward. Russia is the one country, to my knowledge, which cannot be accused of injustice and arrogance in asking women to bear children, for it gives them assurance of protection and adequate care, medical, economic and social. Viewed in this way, the juxtaposition of provisions depriving women of the right to abortion and provisions for maternity and child care are logical and tenable.

The law is reactionary, none the less. As a feminist, I protest against any woman having children if and when she does not want them. As a woman I believe that women do by nature want children, given the assurance that they will have a proper chance in life.

Interesting experimentation has been done in Russia in developing new methods of contraception. There is here an opportunity to supply a world need in discovering a contraceptive which can be used by the masses; that is, one which is simple, inexpensive, and which does not need the detailed personal instruction which present methods demand.

Let Russia further develop its estimable program of maternal and child care. Let it hold courageously to its former policy of abortions properly performed if need arises, and let it lessen that need by providing and developing adequate birth control service. With such a well-rounded course of action, Russian women may well become the envy of women in less “enlightened” countries.

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