Women’s rights and childbirth

Contrary to a popular belief that gender equality supposedly had been established long time ago and forever, women’s rights continue to be violated in many countries throughout the world, Russia being one of them. On October 26, 2015, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will review various reports concerning violations of women’s rights in various spheres: several NGOs, including ADC “Memorial”, prepared alternative reports concerning the situation of women in Russia.

In recent years Russian authorities paid increased attention to the role of women in improving the demographic situation in the country. Woman is increasingly seen as a mere tool for reproduction. The state advocates rather questionable ways of improving women’s reproductive health. For example, a ban on women occupying a number of interesting and prestigious professions is in place, based on the grounds that it is harmful for women to lift heavy weight or to be in close proximity of loud noise, i.e. the factors that may be harmful for pregnant women (or rather, the health of the fetus), but which could be dealt with by a woman’s body in a normal fashion.

However, Russian regulations do not include such reasonable measures as informing workers about the hazardous nature of some labor activities, in particular hazards for pregnant women. At the same time, pregnancy is not discussed in particular when a person is enrolled for allegedly harmful work. While the state justifies restrictions on the choice of profession with references to concern about reproductive health, women themselves are not asked whether they want to have children, whether they are able to have them or if they already had given birth to children while they are refused employment or dismissed from particular jobs. Even sterilization, infertility and being beyond childbearing age are not considered grounds for giving women possibility to occupy certain positions, which are legally prohibited for them.

A striking example of this is the case of Svetlana Medvedeva, whose legal rights were represented in court by the experts of ADC “Memorial”. Medvedeva, who had been studying to become a navigator, later faced impossibility to carry on-the-job training on a ship and get her diploma, because in order to complete training future captains were required to receive combined training as helmsmen, i.e. to work in the engine room of the ship, which was prohibited for women (although women are allowed to get training as navigators and study navigation at respective faculties of universities, nevertheless, they are de facto not allowed to complete their training). The fact that Medvedeva already was mother of two children and did not plan to have more kids, was not considered to be a ground for overruling an earlier court decision in her case.

Despite the arguments put forward by demographic experts, who do not consider population growth to be an absolute good in itself, one can see appeals to have more children, idyllic representations of women’s happiness, which is supposedly only possible within a traditional family almost everywhere. An ideal large family is depicted on United Russia’s “banner of the straights”. Another widely publicized case is a “moral charter”, which was included into personal health journal given to pregnant women in prenatal clinics, which includes advice on how to strengthen family relationships, invokes old Russian traditions of having many children, condemns abortion by equating it with infanticide.

Abortions have generally become a topic of particular concern. Russia, historically the first country to legalize abortions, is now considering banning them: recently within a period of mere two months a total of four draft laws concerning prohibition or restriction of the right to abortion in various forms were introduced for consideration by the State Duma by a group of deputies headed by Yelena Mizulina. These proposals include elimination of the sales of medicines for abortion, obligatory listening to the heartbeat of the child using ultrasound equipment for women before deciding on abortion, a ban on abortion without specific medical reasons (which accounts to only about 1.5% of all abortions) and even criminalization of abortions made outside of state-owned medical institutions.

Practice shows that prohibition of abortion does not necessarily lead to an increase in the birth rate, but it definitely increases the mortality rate of women. Therefore to call these legal initiatives aiming to ban abortions “initiatives aimed at improving demographic situation” is wrong, as the number of illegal abortions, hazardous to women’s health, will increase, as well as the number of children abandoned after birth. One should also pay close attention to pressure from the state and society, experienced by women who choose to have an abortion.

Abortions are certainly not beneficial for women’s health, but efforts should be made to reduce the number of abortions through sex education and support for access to modern contraceptives. However, the number of programs aimed at helping women with family planning is only reduced in recent years, and in some instances even prohibited.

But precisely because we are talking about women’s health, women should be given the right to decide whether to have an abortion or not. Unfortunately, many women, especially those from disadvantaged groups or women living in traditional communities, are often completely deprived of access to sex education and have to resort to abortion for them is the only method of birth control.

Meanwhile, various Russian government agencies increasingly support propaganda for banning abortion. For example, in Samara a campaign “Mommy! What is a birthday?” was carried out recently, which borrowed its rhetoric from the notoriously aggressive pro-life campaigners in other countries. Campaign included a one-day refusal of doctors to perform any abortions.

While advocating ban on abortions for some women, abortions are in fact enforced for others, for example, patients of closed medical institutions. In a recently published video interview Elvira Slepchenko, a patient of psycho-neurological clinic in Leningrad region, reported being forcibly delivered to the clinic for an abortion. This woman was placed in a special “lock-up” section of the clinic for refusing to have an abortion, after that she was forcibly taken to the hospital, from where she managed to escape. Despite having a psychiatric diagnosis, Elvira Slepchenko was not deprived of legal capacity to act, she was aware of the pregnancy and wanted to keep the child. In just a few months after that, a similar case in a Moscow orphanage was reported: doctors forced Olga Lubchenco to make an abortion, which she was able to avoid by resorting to legal aid of an NGO, which helped her to make an appeal to prosecutor’s office concerning illegality of forced abortion. Despite the need for voluntary consent of a woman to have an abortion, the practice of forced abortions is common in closed institutions. For legally disabled women abortions can be carried out only by court order, and if hospitals or doctors force women to terminate pregnancy, it is violation of the law. Unfortunately, this happens quite often as closed institutions simply do not have the conditions for placing the child with the mother. However, depriving women of the right to have children they want is inadmissible.

This increased attention to women’s reproductive health is extremely puzzling, especially because as it turns out, men’s reproductive health hardly concerns anybody. A large number of men work in conditions hazardous for their paternal health, are exposed to radiation on submarines and nuclear power plants (obviously resulting in infertility or poor health of their offsprings), life expectancy for men is much lower for women, they are much more prone to alcoholism. All of these factors obviously affect the health of their future children. However, the state does not seem to consider reproduction to be a direct function of men, highlighting men’s advantages over women in other areas, while it is only women, in contrast, who have to take care about improving demographic statistics.

By trying to strictly impose maternal roles onto women, the state and society ignores the rights of women, who are able to decide by themselves whom they want to be and how they want to live.

Inessa Sakhno