Last week, amateur mushroom-gatherers in a forest in rural Sverdlovsk Province discovered four barrels containing 248 human embryos and fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. The developmental ages of the remains ranged from less than four weeks to more than fifteen weeks. It was not immediately clear whether the remains were the results of abortions or miscarriages – a question that is currently under investigation by forensic scientists.
How the barrels got there and who should be held responsible is also under investigation. The barrels came from a hospital that was identified by tags attached to some of the remains; most Russian hospitals, including this one, contract out biomedical waste disposal. The contractors have denied everything. No one seems to have records to identify the path the remains took after leaving the hospital. The story has resurrected persistent questions about lack of oversight and inadequate funding that have plagued the Russian medical industry since the fall of the Soviet Union. Additionally, it has stirred up conspiracy theories that the remains were used for medical experimentation or stem cell harvesting.
It has also resurrected the deep ambivalence that many in the Russian government feel about the state of abortion in the country, which has fairly liberal abortion laws, provides abortion for free at state-run hospitals, and, like the rest of Eastern Europe, has an anomalously high abortion rate. Russian Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina, chair of the parliamentary Committee on the Family, Women and Children and a constant anti-abortion presence in Russia, has seized on the story. She has used the fetal remains scandal to promote the idea that Russia is home to a sinister black market abortion business: “[Remains of fetuses] at 15-20 weeks means illegal abortion! It’s forbidden after twelve weeks! We’re not talking about the one million abortions [legally performed in Russia each year] but 5-6 million [illegal abortions].” In a separate interview with Izvestia, Mizulina is quoted as saying, “[Abortion after 12 weeks] is unsafe for the mother and is already murder of a fairly well-developed fetus. The remains discovered in these containers were not embryos, but human children – unborn murdered human creatures.” Mizulina is calling for laws educating women considering abortion about where “the so-called medical remains of abortion” end up.
While some illegal abortion undoubtedly take place in Russia, Mizulina’s claims are largely a scare tactic. Her statement about the illegality of mid-term abortions is demonstrably false – Russian law allows abortions after twelve weeks in cases where clear social or medical exemptions demonstrate a “need” for abortion. However, Mizulina’s version of the law could be coming soon. In the 1990’s, when laws were relaxed to decrease the number of illegal “back alley” abortions and ease the burden of unplanned pregnancy on a society reeling from the breakup of the USSR, the list of social exemptions allowing a second-trimester abortion included thirteen items, such as family income below the poverty line, death of the father, or imprisonment of either parent. But Russia has repeatedly scaled back on abortion access since the 1990′s, with lawmakers citing both demographic and moral concerns as justification for restricting women’s rights. As of the law’s latest revision in October of 2011, only one item, impregnation as the result of a crime, remains on the social exemption list.
Legislators aren’t the only ones concerned about the country’s demographics and its moral compass. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has steadily gained both followers and political clout since the fall of Communism and abolition of official state atheism, is vehemently against abortion. In 2010, the Russian Society of Orthodox Christian doctors proposed legislation enacting a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. (It was not signed into law – instead, a variable waiting period of two to seven days, depending on the term of pregnancy, was enacted in 2011.) A press release from the synod’s PR department on the fetal remains scandal called it a result of Russian society’s descent into moral relativism and opined that “society and the state will never solve the demographic problem if people continue to treat their unborn children like trash or raw materials for the medical industry” – an echo of conspiracy theorists’ stem cell harvest fears. The Church will be holding a reading of the Orthodox prayer “For the Innocently Slain” in the forest this Friday, joined by anti-abortion activists.
If Deputy Mizulina’s unqualified medical opinions and proposed use of emotional manipulation to restrict abortion access – and the Orthodox Church’s actions against abortion – sound eerily familiar to American readers, there’s a historical reason for that. The United States isn’t the only country where the resurgence of conservatism has led to a war on women’s reproductive health and a reversal of relatively liberal policies. Anti-choice activists around the world are surely learning at the knee of vocal American activists. The extent to which this particular scandal will shift the landscape in Russia remains to be seen, but it seems likely that it will serve as a symbol and rallying point for those who would further restrict Russian women’s access to abortions – either for a long time to come or until they achieve their goals, whichever comes first.