The Pussy Riot Column

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova on the Fight for Abortion Rights in Russia

The country's social conservatives say abortion must be abolished to increase the birth rate, but really they want to take control of women's basic biological functions.

by Nadya Tolokonnikova
15 August 2015, 5:14am

Anti-abortion activists demonstrate in Vladivostok in 2007. Photo via AP Photo

"The feminists are out on maternity leave!" I shout. It's the fall of 2011 and I'm with Pussy Riot, protesting against the possibility that Russia will adopt a restrictive new anti-abortion law. We're in our balaclavas and playing old-school feminist punk rock on a narrow platform atop some construction scaffolding in a Moscow subway station, six meters above the heads of our audience and the cops. It's Pussy Riot's first concert.

Back then, if you had woken up the average Russian feminist in the middle of the night and asked her what she was most worried about, she would have immediately answered, "Whether they'll pass the anti-abortion law." The bill proposed removing abortion from the list of free medical procedures provided by the state, and would have banned abortions without the consent of the woman's husband, if she was married, or her parents, if she was a juvenile. It would also have obliged doctors to provide women who come in asking to end their pregnancies with seven days of "time to think" before getting the procedure, make them go through a "psychological consultation," and require that they "be informed about the dangers of abortion" and "hear the fetal heartbeat." (Similar rules requiring women go through a waiting period or look at an ultrasound image of the fetus before getting an abortion have been proposed or adopted by various US states.)

"You mentioned the anti-abortion bill in your song. Why?" a female journalist asks us after the concert.

"Of course we mentioned it," I tell her. "We already live in a country where there's no fucking right to choose."

"Women have it hard enough already, and they're trying to restrict us even more," adds Bullet, another member of Pussy Riot.

"We need to just stop screwing," the activist called Hat says, breaking into our conversation. "What's the point of ever screwing at all?"

In the end, the 2011 anti-abortion bill was only partially adopted. The mandatory "week of silence" between a woman's visit to her doctor and her abortion was written into law, meaning Russia embraced the idea that women are irrational creatures who can't be trusted to come to the correct decision about their own bodies without prodding from government. The new law also allows doctors the right to refuse to provide abortions due to "personal convictions."

Now deputies in the Russian Duma are considering a bill that would remove abortions from the list of services covered by state care and ban private clinics from performing them. This bill came into being after Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, spoke at the Duma in January and claimed that among other things, abortion restrictions would help drive up Russia's low birth rate. "If we manage to cut the number of abortions by 50 percent we would have stable and powerful population growth," he said.

On VICE News: Military Confrontation Between NATO and Russia Is Increasingly Likely, Warns New Report

This talk of population growth is serious business in Russia—here, declining birth rates are spoken of in tones reserved for national crisis, and President Vladimir Putin once said the country needed to "cleanse" its gays in order to get birth numbers up. The birth rate is also invoked by politicians who want to attack reproductive rights.

Gennady Onishchenko, who used to be the Russian equivalent to a surgeon general and is currently a cabinet adviser, said recently that "fabricated rubber products (condoms) have nothing to do with health." The bureaucrat's line sounds even worse when you consider the fact that the number of Russians with AIDS has gone from 500,000 in 2010 to over 900,000 today—a trend that's the opposite of what you'd expect from a developed country. Onishchenko also expressed hope that a ban on the sale of imported condoms would force Russians to "be more discriminating, more strict and selective, in choosing their partners," and that the ban "may serve our society well by solving demographic problems."

It's strange that the Patriarch and Onishchenko don't know this, but reducing abortions does not mean abortions will increase. According to the Russian-language site Meduza, from 1990 to 1999, the number of abortions in Russia fell by a factor of 1.8, while the number of births fell by a factor of 1.6; the birth rate in Poland continued to fall after an abortion ban was introduced there in 1993, and in 2003 the Polish birth rate was one of the lowest in the world. Demographic losses in the early 1930s led Stalin to ban abortion in the Soviet Union, a prohibition that lasted from 1936 to 1955. That law had almost no effect on the birth rate: 1937 saw a jump of about 10 percent in births, and then the rate went back to falling while the maternal mortality rate rose sharply.

Anti-abortion initiatives will probably not provide Russia with a higher birth rate, then, but they nevertheless harmonize well with Putin's pivot to conservative values. They fit another trend, too—the one by which Russian authorities resort to bans to solve problems, rather than working to improve the conditions causing those problems. A ban requires less expenditure of government resources. We ban foreign cheese, ban vacations outside of Russia, and ban abortions. This tendency to ban everything is fertile soil for groups in the community that dispute a woman's right to control her body.

In Russia, as elsewhere, many anti-abortion groups argue not just against abortion, but also against modern contraception.

This desire for control, for women to submit, courses through the anti-abortion movement. "Any woman knows that, objectively, the purpose of sexual relations is the birth of children, while pleasure is of secondary importance to her body," says the website of the Russian anti-abortion group "Warriors of Life" "IUDs and hormonal formulas are commonly listed among modern methods of contraception," the site continues. "But both are actually methods of abortion. There is no particular difference between cutting a person up and poisoning him. The result is the same." In Russia, as elsewhere, many anti-abortion groups argue not just against abortion, but also against modern contraception.

In 1920, Russia became the first country in the world to legalize abortion. But that decision was reversed by Stalin by the end of that decade, and conversations about sex and birth control were driven underground, into the public subconscious. It wasn't polite to talk about sex in the Soviet Union; in 1986 a Russian woman became famous for saying, "There's no sex in the USSR" on a joint USSR-US telecast. That summed up the situation perfectly. When the US went through its sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s, the Soviet Ministry of Health was writing about the dangers of hormonal contraceptives. Russia still hasn't overcome its mistrust of modern birth control—which may explain the country's notoriously high abortion rates.

For every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in Russia, there are 25 abortions. In the US, there are 17. Reason, history, and experience tell us that if we want to reduce the number of abortions, bans are not the way to achieve that result. Abortion numbers can be reduced by making sure reliable information about family planning methods is available, by ensuring people can consult with specialists regarding those methods, and by offering a wide variety of modern birth control options and sex education.

Abortion remains legal in Russia, but it's obvious that anti-abortion—and anti-contraception, and anti-choice—forces are on the rise. As for sex education, I remember being told, "Your future child will resemble the man who took your virginity. Your body remembers that first man, so be careful who you choose!" at the only "sex education" lecture in my entire school career. In two hours the lecturer never once uttered the words sex or contraception. That was in 2005.

Things are scarcely better in 2015. This year, the Russian Federation Public Chamber held a meeting of the committee on science and education. Members of the clergy and conservative organizations filled the room, including Larisa Pavlova, a lawyer for the prosecution in the Pussy Riot trial. Eventually all those voices blend into one in my head:

"I'm a teacher myself, and we have these people in our school now... They talked about safe sex, if you'll pardon the expression."

"We will be filing complaints with the prosecutor's office against anyone conducting sex education among our children!"

"The main role of young people is to ensure the reproduction of society. But our informational environment today is implanting our youth not with spiritual values, but with hedonism, individualism, and other negative values."

"The forces working to destroy the family are using salami tactics, cutting the family up into slices."

"We could demand that modules be added dedicated to family values, throughout the basic curriculum. Even to math and computer science!"

"When hiring school principals, the focus ought to be not on the person's professional qualities, but on the spiritual, moral image they project!"

"Hitler destroyed only half as many Russian people as the Soviet government did with its abortions. Abortion was made legal in the US only in 1972, so they had a 50-year head start."

"We must assert firmly that society is against sex education in the schools."

Voices like that are why Pussy Riot sang, "Give the holiest what they need! Make the women love and breed!" at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012 before we were arrested.

The next time someone asks me why I brought my punk prayer into the offices of the Orthodox Church in 2012, I'll tell them this: I don't want abortion to be criminalized.

In the Donetsk People's Republic, the pro-Russia region that has broken away from Ukraine, abortion is no longer legal. Article 3 of the DPR Constitution, adopted in May 2014, reads: "The human being and his rights and freedoms are of the highest value. Recognizing, observing, respecting and defending them is the obligation of the Donetsk People's Republic, its government agencies, and officials, and is guaranteed from the moment of human conception." Any artificial termination of pregnancy is tantamount to premeditated murder.

I have a question for the people who argue against a woman's right to decide whether or not to be a mother: Are you prepared to accept the DPR as your role model?

The next time someone asks me why I brought my punk prayer into the offices of the Orthodox Church back then, I'll tell them this: I don't want abortion to be criminalized. I want me, and someday my daughter, to be able to use our bodies at our own discretion. And I want it to be possible someday for feminists in Russia not to worry about how long they'll have control over their basic biological functions.

Translation by Shelley Fairweather-Vega