The Rapid And Mostly Unnoticed Decline Of Abortion In Russia

One of the keystones of the “Dying Bear” meme is the factoid that abortions outnumber births in Russia. As Mark Steyn put it, “When it comes to the future, most Russian women are voting with their fetus.” The only problem is that there is no causal relation between abortions and demographic health whatsoever – and for that matter it is no longer even true factually.


There were 814,149 abortions in 2012, which is less than 50% of the 1,896,263 births during the same period. As we can see from the graph above, abortion as a method of fertility control was specific to the Soviet era and has been in rapid decline since the mid-1990’s. In fact Russia’s abortion rate is now basically equivalent to America’s during the early 1980’s, a decade after Roe vs. Wade. The real story about abortions in Russia is that they have been plummeting in all its regions in the past two decades as it steadily becomes a “normal country” in this as on an array of other indicators; its overall numbers of abortions per live births (43%) are now rapidly converging on the 10%-30% range typical of other developed nations.

But this chart also brings us to another point. A recent Weekly Standard article by Daniel Halper, which makes errors beyond demography (no, Putin did NOT invite Boyz II Men to sing fertility chants), reviews a new book by Jonathan V. Last about how the long supposedly doesn’t have enough babies. Not only does he claim that there are 13 abortions per live births in Russia – a statistic that was last true a decade before the book was published! – but that it “suggests a society that no longer has the will to live.” In that case, what would have made of the RSFSR circa 1965, when abortions reached an all time peak of 27 per 10 live births? Well, in 1965 the birth rate (15.7/1000) was double the death rate (7.6/1000), and the total fertility rate was at an entirely sound and replacement level rate of 2.14 children per woman!

That is the problem with moralistic rhetoric of the “voting with their fetuses” variety. Not only in Russia’s case is it now increasingly wrong at a basic factual level, along with the “voting with their feet” brouhaha over the non-existence emigration crisis, but it doesn’t even describe how the world works in general. Abortion rates were world historically high in the post-Stalin USSR, but at the same time it had eminently sustainable fertility stats. On the other hand, modern Poland – the lovechild of Anglo mainstream conservatives like Mark Steyn and Jonathan Last – has a blanket ban on abortions, but its fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman is now considerably lower than “dying Russia’s” 1.7 or so children per woman.

In reality, abortion tends to be low in low-fertility and high-fertility advanced societies alike, because people get access to pills and realize that wearing a condom is preferable to getting an STD, being saddled with child support, and/or undergoing the physical and psychological stress of an abortion.


  1. John Newcomb says:

    Would appear that Medvedev’s 2011 signing of laws initiating some restrictions on abortions in Russia ( could be in tune with US public opinion which apparently favours more restrictive abortion laws as well (

    • There have been no laws restricting abortion in Russia. Abortion providers are not allowed to make false claims about the procedure anymore.

  2. RusFed-o-phile says:

    That’s no decline – that’s a full-grown collapse. The abortion numbers are less than a third of those 20 years ago and they were considerably smaller than the Soviet numbers. Here an overview with a comparison abortions vs. life births and the yearly procentual decline:

    The numbers for 2012 (814k) are fishy and in reality they are somewhat higher. They stand since several months on wiki with no source given, probaly from a dubious forecast. Those in the link I’ve given are from Rosstat (with an estimate for 2012).

    I noticed that Boyz II Me crap also. Information warfare at its finest. I swear you won’t find a mention of the (almost) reversion of the Russion cross last year except for a few Ru-based sites like RIA. That’s highly interesting since all problematic issues of the Russian demographics improved rapidly over the years (high death rate esp. the unnatural, low births, abortions, emigraton /brain drain, drug epidemics) but the prevalent mood of the MSM (not only western but even many Russian) is like the 90’s were never gone.

  3. Interesting article on this topic – different abortion trends in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

    • Dear AM,

      An interesting article, though I suspect that the divergence in abortion rates between the three Slav republics it refers to has now narrowed. Anyway the article reinforces my view that one of the key drivers in the decline in abortion rates is government health policy though I strongly doubt that nativist sentiments or the influence of the Church had much to do with the initially slower rate of decline in the use of abortion in Russia as opposed to the two other Slav republics. Rather I suspect the reason was that health was given little priority in the Yeltsin era and in the early Putin era. Now that it is given priority one of the effects has been the swift decline, indeed collapse, in abortion rates as alternative methods of birth control have become more widely available.

    • Thanks for that article. It’s conclusions are borne out by the graph in my post, i.e. both Belarus and Ukraine decline faster than Russia in the 2000’s, but whereas their declines begin to slowly flatted from 2008/2009, Russia maintains a steady high rate of decrease to at least 2012 meaning that in another year or two it will have converged and will, presumably, also flatten out then.

    • Like all other demographic variables the Ukrainian rates differ so much by region that it almost doesn’t make sense to even provide statistics for the country as a whole – such stats are somewhat meaningless. It’s a less extreme example of writing that a certain medication is “50% effective” when in fact it is 100% effective on males and 0% effective on females. Abortion rates in 1999:

      Fertility rates:

  4. I may be mistaken, but it’s my understanding that in Russia a pregnancy terminated in the first trimester may or may not be (often not) accounted for as an abortion. The physician has the discretion to describe a procedure as a D&C or other treatment without mentioning any kind of abortion.

    This would certainly add a large number of terminations not currently counted in the reported statistics.

    My experience in Russia leads me to believe that abortions are underreported by practitioners, and that the current numbers would be much much higher than claimed in the original post.

    • Dear Marissa,

      There may be an element of under reporting of abortions in Russia though this is probably true in most countries. I doubt that the level of under reporting can be so great as to fundamentally change the overall picture, which is of rapid decline.

      Incidentally, it’s not clear to me why Russian doctors would want to under report abortions given that the practice is not illegal and is socially very widely accepted. Opinion polls show that there is almost no opposition to abortion in Russia in contrast to the west (including the US) where substantial minorities oppose it.

    • Abortion in Russia is only legal up to 12 weeks except in exceptional circumstances. So if true this would affect all abortions.

      I do not think this effect can be very widespread since basically all the post-Soviet countries have seen huge falls in abortion (indeed, many of them higher than Russia’s). Unless they are all – including the Baltic states, BTW – fudging their numbers.

      • I’m going to stick to my assessment that Russia is grossly underreporting abortions.

        Part of the reason is that a good friend of mine in Moscow was a good friend of a Russian ob/gyn. We had a long conversation in which she was telling me that her doctor friend was so discouraged with her medical practice, as she had optimistically gone through medical training so she could deliver babies, and then when she got out into the real world of Russian medical practice she found that she spent much of her professional time performing abortions.

        AND because I think we all know that data and statistics supplied by official Russian sources are heavily manipulated to show a rosier picture than the real truth. (on just about any subject)

        AND because of the Russian women I talked to pretty much admitted that abortion was a common and recurrent method of birth control.

        • Those are anecdotal observations.

          Besides, when were said observations? Were they recent? After all, the collapse in abortions (at least in statistics) is a pretty recent development.

          Second, no, far from all of us “know that data and statistics supplied by official Russian sources are heavily manipulated to show a rosier picture than the real truth.”

          Just to take a very recent example, as noted by mls13 IIRC, if Rosstat were into the fudging numbers game they had an excellent opportunity to produce positive natural growth figures for this year to get some good headlines. How hard can it be to make -2,500 into +2,500? But they didn’t.

          • Anecdotal? Yes, of course.

            But sometimes you can learn a great deal of truth by observation and conversation, whereas statistics can be twisted into any kind of configuration that suits the purpose of the data purveyor.

            We left Russia in 2008.

            • That is of course true, but that mainly applies if the circle of friends you communicate with is representative.

              (For instance, from where I currently reside, I could on the basis of my observations start pontificating that Americans are mostly anti-war, pro-choice, anti-guns liberal lefties. But that would of course be ridiculous).

              Now as you yourself say (1) one of your good friends was an obstetrician, i.e. right in the thick of it, and (2) you left in 2008, aka at the time you were there abortions were (statistically) almost twice as frequent as they are now.

            • And while I’m on the topic of data manipulation….
              …not related to Russian abortions but germane to Russian government data collection…

              There is a website which traces the disappeared, building by building, during Stalin’s purges. It came up that a particular building (can’t remember which building or where the reference arose) suffered a near total disappearance of its inhabitants (perhaps it is in one of the website’s external links?). Anyway–as it turned out, two of the demographers who Stalin assigned to provide a current census of Russia lived in this building. When they compiled their census it seemed that there were several millions less Russians at that time than had been counted in the Tsarist census. The conclusion was pretty clear that millions of Russians had vanished somewhere along the line.

              So Stalin’s solution to the report of the missing millions of Russian population, was apparently to disappear the demographers. And their neighbors. And a whole lot of other residents of the building. Nearly everyone.

              Trusting the truthfulness of government statistics, especially in Russia, is to throw disbelief into the wind. My friend, governments issue reports that serve their purposes or the report never gets issued.

              For disheartening and alarming Russian history (not related to this abortion discussion at all) I suggest you take a look at this:

              If you live in Moscow, your building is here. And people from it went missing. It really is creepy.

              • I’m aware of those maps (Sean Guillory had a post about it a couple years back) and of course I’m aware of the history of the Stalinist Censuses. But do you not find it rather telling that even an utterly totalitarian society like the 1930’s USSR couldn’t conceal its attempts at statistical-demographic fraud? What makes you think that Rosstat, were it so inclined, would be more successful at this in a society with Internet and free media? Do you not think that presupposes a wildly unrealistic degree of both repression and competence on the part of the Russian state?

              • I have no idea what Stalinist terror or the fate of the 1937 census has any relevance here. But for those interested in that episode, I recommend: Catherine Merridale, “The 1937 Census and the Limits of Stalinist Rule,” The Historical Journal 39, no. 1 (1996). A copy of the article is available here.

                Yes, Soviet stats are a tricky thing. But historians and demographers use them nonetheless and quite effectively. Most researchers don’t take the numbers for exact reflections of reality–because after all censuses and other social statistics are complicated endeavors regardless of the country and political system they are performed. Nevertheless, despite their margins of error they do provide good general impressions and trends. To suggest that Rosstat is engaged in a mass falsification campaign and the proof of this is to reference 1937 is rather silly and just not a serious statement. Perhaps this is why critics of the Russian government can’t make any headway–They just declare that the institutions that make up Russian society are just useless and irredeemable rather than working earnestly as a lot of professional academics, statisticians etc are to make them better.

              • Oh, come on! Your “proof” that Rosstat’ statistics are not reliable is a reference to manipulation during Stalin’s purges? Did you know that the Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago, and that Stalin has been dead for (almost) 6 decades?

            • Dear Marissa,

              Where the ob/gyn friend was working in Moscow is significant. If she worked in just the one clinic and it had a reputation for family planning issues including abortion, customers would be referring friends and acquaintances there to have abortions, and this enhances the clinic’s reputation for doing certain procedures so it ends up getting more referrals for more of those procedures and these crowd out other work the clinic does. Plus the friend becomes more expert at the abortion procedures so she ends up with the bulk of the referrals. So even if your set of friends represents Russians generally, and their clients are coming from all corners of Russia as well, there is still a bias in your “sample”.

        • “AND because I think we all know that data and statistics supplied by official Russian sources are heavily manipulated to show a rosier picture than the real truth. (on just about any subject)”

          This assertion is absurd. Russian officials have shown, if anything, an incredible lack of desire to paint a rosy picture in Russia. Indeed, part of the point of blogs like this one is that Russia can’t even get its act together to show how things really are to counter Western propaganda, let alone try to paint them as even better. No, these statistics are petitioned and created for a reason, namely to craft government policy by objectively judging past successes and failures so as to alter or, alternatively, stay the course. Of course, I understand why you might think this using your own government as an example. If you want the classic case of manipulated statistics, see US GDP and unemployment numbers.

          • My two cents. Pursuant to Rosstat order # 520 of 29/12/2011 (;base=LAW;n=124718;div=LAW;mb=LAW;opt=1;ts=EDAEE3C91E0F3B58059EE0C54EEDCB31;rnd=0.9599394946398248 , avalible ater 8 PM workdays and 24h on holidays, Moscow time), medical facilities are to report all arificial termination of pregnancy (i. e., abortions) that occured up until 22 weeks of pregnancy in special form (number 13, incidentally), which includes not only 1. Willful abortions (up to 12 weeks), 2. socialally-allowed abortions (as of now, only rape-induced stays as such) and 3, Due to medical reasons (no time limit in law) that occured up to 22 weeks, but also criminal ones and even unspecified (everyrthing that doesnt fit the rest) cases. And in form 14 facility have to report those again, this time as a part of aggregate number of ALL abortions regardless of the pregnancy term, as a part of a report # 14 pertaining to all surgeries done. This time its divided by age groups. Anyone may cry foul, bit it’d requre an extremely strict discipline and devotion in entire Rosstat system to tweak those numbers un a way that would sufficiently distort the outcame. There is none, first hand iinfo.

            • Thank you for this excellent post. This is the sort of hard data and iron logic that we need a lot more of. So it seems that the data for 2012 when they come out will surely be some of the most reliable yet.

  5. Dear Anatoly,

    I found this one of the most interesting articles you have written. It tells us a huge amount and is historically interesting as well.

    1. First of all any discussion of the history of abortion in Russia needs to start with an understanding that Russia was an extreme pioneer in abortion legalisation. Abortion was first legalised in Russia in 1920. It was then banned, apparently on Stalin’s personal initiative, in 1936. It was then legalised again in 1955, shortly after Stalin’s death. This compares with Britain where abortion was legalised in 1967, with the US where it was legalised (following Roe v. Wade) in 1973, with France where it was legalised in 1975 (the Veil law) and in West Germany where it was (partially) legalised in 1976 (it was legalised in East Germany in 1973 in the face of open opposition in the East German parliament).

    2. Russia unlike western countries therefore legalised abortion well before what is now the most common method of birth control (the contraceptive pill) came into use in the 1960s. Of course the second most common current method of birth control, the condom, has existed for much longer. However condoms before the 1960s were far less available and far more uncomfortable, even in the west, than they are today (I wonder how widespread they were in Russia in the 1920 and 1930 and in the 1950s)? Anyway, my point is that if Russian women turned to abortion as a prime method of birth control it was because they could have a legal abortion at a time when other legal and convenient methods of birth control like the contraceptive were either unavailable or like the condom were uncommon not only in Russia but everywhere else as well. If western countries had legalised abortion in the 1950s before the appearance of the contraceptive pill and the widespread use of modern condoms it is surely likely that the same thing would also have happened in the west.

    3. I make this point because I sometimes get the sense of a certain moralising in discussions of this question (though not I should stress in your article). I am not remotely suggesting that abortion ought to be a routine method of birth control. Quite apart from anything else doing so is disastrously expensive and inefficient. However it does seem to me that despite the legalisation of abortion in the west there continues to be a tendency in western commentary to overdramatise its effects on women and to stigmatise a society that widely uses it because it continues for many people in the west to be a controversial and unGodly practice.

    4. As it happens it is interesting that there was a steady (and completely unreported) decline in abortion in Russia after 1965 throughout the late Soviet period. On the (surely reasonable) assumption that the level of sexual activity remained constant the only logical explanation for this must be that contrary to what is often said more modern and efficient methods of birth control such as the contraceptive pill and the modern condom did become available and come into use in Russia in the 1960s at roughly the same time that they did in the west. The much slower of take up of these methods must have been due (1) to the extent to which abortion had already become embedded as the way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy because of the prior history of its legalisation and practice and (2) the total lack of interest in promoting such methods as an alternative to abortion on the part of the Soviet authorities. On the evidence of the decline in abortion rates after 1965 and more recently I cannot help but think that much more could have been done and much more quickly if the Soviet authorities had shown any interest in doing it. Possibly the failure to do anything was because of a misguided attempt to limit contraception in order to promote population growth but I suspect the true reason for this failure is to be found in the general neglect of health questions and of the health service that was a hallmark of the Brezhnev period.

    5. The extraordinary spike in abortions in the early 1990s finally and conclusively settles the question of what was responsible for Russia’s population decline. There can be no other explanation for this spike than a conscious decision by millions of Russian women to terminate pregnancies as part of a larger decision against having children. The economic crisis of the early 1990s is both the only and a sufficient explanation for this. In other words the economic crisis of the 1990s was the reason for the population decline and this is conclusively proved by the sudden and dramatic spike in abortions at the start of this period. In the light of this overwhelming fact it is simply incredible that there are people who still argue the opposite.

    6. By contrast the recent steep decline in abortions is obviously due (1) to a greater willingness to have children because of the good economic conditions and (2) because of the much wider uptake of alternative methods of birth control. Given what I said previously about how it would surely have been possible to promote alternative methods of birth control much earlier during the Soviet period had there been the slightest political will to do so, I cannot help but think the recent dramatic decline is not just to the greater worldiness and sophistication of modern Russian women but also to the fact that for the first time since the 1960s Russia has a government that takes the question of the Russian population’s health and general physical wellbeing seriously.

    7. Lastly, I would just make a cultural point. No one who has lived in the west over the last fifty years can be in any doubt of the absolutely central importance of the abortion debate in the political mobilisation of women and in fostering the spread of feminism in the west. The argument about abortion and the unending battle over Roe v. Wade continues for example to be central to the US’s culture wars. In every western country abortion continues to be the subject of passionate debate, with powerful forces within western society constantly looking for ways to undo the legalisations of the 1970s. This surely provides some explanation for why western feminism and US style culture wars have failed to take root to anything like the same extent in Russia. In Russia the battle for the right to abortion is one that Russian women have simply not had to fight and the minor tinkering with the abortion law that recently took place notwithstanding, it is a right that is not under any threat. In the absence of such a battle or such a threat there has been no similar urgent incentive for Russian women to mobilise politically in the same way as women have done and continue to do in the west.

    • I agree with most of this. In particular, Russia’s status as a “pioneer” of abortion rights is something I hadn’t considered as a contributor to the high rates of abortion in the ex-USSR. But it must be true to an extent.

      From what I’ve been told condoms were widely available in the USSR from the 1970’s and 1980’s, but they were low-quality.

      The economic crisis was a contributor to Russia’s population decline on the fertility side, however that was not the case for the mortality side (The Lancet is quite simply wrong on that). The primary reason was the dismantlement of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, which had been crude but effective, and in particular the end of the state’s vodka monopoly.

      • I lived in USSR in 80es and was old enough to think about availability of this consumption good 🙂 What you were told might have been true in Moscow but not elsewhere. Even in large cities. I had to bring a lot of this staff from foreign trips, and they were precious.

        • moscowexile says:

          They certainly were precious. I lived in both Soviet and immediate-post Soviet Voronezh, and condoms brought back with me to the USSR/Russia as a result of my toing and froing between that city and the UK were the greatest gifts that I could hand out to my acquaintances.There were Soviet condoms, but they were always deficit. I think they were made in India. I used to joke that they appeared to have been made out of recycled bicycle inner tubes.

    • As always Alexander Mercouris – excellent commentary – you never fail in perceptive and insightful analysis and elevating the level of our debates and discussions

  6. Reblogged this on Political Deficit and commented:
    Something indeed left unnoticed.

  7. Little Pig says:

    A very interesting article. I’ve found some material on the subject written by I.S.Kon (И.С.Кон), who was quite a specialist in this problem in the USSR but unfortunately I cannot attach the link.
    In particular he writes about the difficulties people had in receiving an access to the pill and condoms in the USSR. However, he mentions that 4 % of women having incomplete secondary education and 11 % of those with a higher education used the pill in 1976 in Moscow (obviously less in other places). Although this percentage is really low, it’s still not 0, and actually the problems seems to have been more complicated. It’s not true that there was no pill at all in the USSR, there was a lot of propaganda against it and it was impossible to get it without prescription. I think that in fact a lot of people are still prejudiced against the pill.

    The article is in Russian, and it’s easy to find it via Wikipedia (there is a link there to the author’s official site).

    • and the gov-t’s media supports anti pill hysteria

      • Little Pig says:

        I think that nothing is going to change really fast, because although the generation of women who used abortion is primarily measure of contraception is old enough, medicine is not going to change really fast, particularly because of wide spread (and not unfounded) beliefs that medical service was better in the Soviet Union and older doctors are to be trusted more. And younger doctors are often really bad. There were so many scandals with diplomas received without studying… I think that medicine nowadays is unlikely to go really far from what was in the USSR, and contraception is no different from that.

  8. Just a data point: abortion rates were very high in the last two decades of Yugoslavia — except among the socially conservative Albanians. The difference in abortion rates was high enough to be a significant contributing factor to the demographic shift in Kosovo (though probably not as significant as differential emigration).

    I think there’s a bit of historical contingency here. In countries that legalized abortion before the introduction of good birth control (“good” here meaning cheap, reliable, easy-to-access and decent quality), abortion /became/ the method of birth control — and it took a generation or two to dislodge it from that position.

    Personal data point: as a college kid back in the late 1980s, I briefly dated a Bulgarian gal. At one point she mentioned in passing that she’d had an abortion. (She was in her early 20s.) This was done in a very casual way over coffee and a sandwich; IMS the context was something like “all my friends saw this band, but I couldn’t go because I had an abortion that day, tch.” My younger self was a little freaked out by it, but I suspect it was a fairly common attitude among many Eastern European women of her generation.

    Doug M.