On women’s rights and abortion in the USSR

Stalin and Mamlakat Nakhangova in 1935.

By Alfonso Casal, National Chair of the American Party of Labor.

The status of women under socialism:

(Constitution of the U.S.S.R., Article 122.)
Commentary by J. Stalin.

“Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, government, cultural, political and other public activity.

The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured by women being accorded an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by State protection of the interests of mother and child, State aid to mothers of large families and unmarried mothers, maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.

All citizens have equal rights. It is not property status, not national origin, not sex, nor office, but personal ability and personal labour, that determines the position of every citizen in society.”

The USSR’s record for ensuring and safeguarding women’s rights was second to none at the time, and still a positive example:

“To help women take an active part in production and in public life in general, the Soviet state has established numerous nurseries and kindergartens, where the mother can leave her child while she is at work.

In 1937 the nurseries and kindergartens of the Soviet Union (exclusive of seasonal nurseries and kindergartens) accommodated 1,800,000 children. The Third Five-Year Plan provides for the accommodation of 4,200,000 children by 1942. Seasonal nurseries and kindergartens established by collective farms during the farming season accommodated approximately 5,100,000 children in 1937.

Public dining rooms and the wide sale of ready-to-serve and ready-to-cook food also relieve the woman of a great share of her housework. There are over 30,000 public catering establishments in the U.S.S.R. In 1938 their turnover amounted to 12,000,000,000 rubles. The planned turnover for 1939 is 13,500,000,000 rubles.”

Law on the prohibition of abortions:

“1. In view of the proven harm of abortions, to forbid the performance of abortions both in hospitals and special health institutions, and in the homes of doctors and private homes of pregnant women. The performance of abortions shall be allowed exclusively in those cases when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the life or threatens serious injury to the health of the pregnant woman and equally when a serious disease of the parents can be inherited, and only under hospital or maternity home conditions.

2. For the performance of abortions outside a hospital or in a hospital under conditions violating the above provisions, the doctor performing the abortion shall be criminally punishable to the extent of one to two years of imprisonment, while for the performance of abortions under insanitary conditions or by persons who have no special medical education a criminal penalty of no less than three years’ imprisonment shall be fixed.

3. For compelling a woman to undergo an abortion, a criminal penalty of two years’ imprisonment shall be fixed.

4. In relation to pregnant women undergoing an abortion in violation of the said prohibition, to establish as a criminal penalty a social reprimand, and in the event of a repetition of the violation of the law on the prohibition of abortions, a fine up to 300 Rubles.”

The law was enacted by woman delegates as a measure to safeguard women’s health — which, in the 1930s, was a very real concern — and to prevent forced abortions. Notice the penalty for forcing a woman to have an abortion (two years’ jail time) vs. for a woman who has an abortion (a reprimand). The health issue: “…while for the performance of abortions under insanitary conditions or by persons who have no special medical education a criminal penalty of no less than three years’ imprisonment shall be fixed.” This law was passed as a measure to safeguard women’s health, not as an example of patriarchy Trotskyists and ultras like to claim. So, look at who the law sanctions and punishes: 1. Woman who gets an abortion — reprimand. 2. Doctor who performs an abortion — 1-2 years in jail. 3. Someone forcing a woman to get an abortion — 2 years in jail. Someone conducting a “back-room” or “coathanger” abortion — AT LEAST 3 years in jail. Look at the law — and I’m not saying it’s perfect — but abortions weren’t banned completely. I think, and this is pure speculation on my part, that it had a lot to do with the quality of available medical care in most of Russia in the 1930s. It has to be seen in historical context. I still think it’s worth noting that the woman getting the abortion was NOT the target of the law.

Additionally, please refer to the book Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936, by Wendy Z. Goldman.

Goldman argues that rather than being reactionary, what on the surface appears to be a reversal of earlier policy was actually the Party responding to feedback from female members. She also argues that part of the motivation for the law limiting abortion was to compel Soviet men to “man up,” as it were, and take responsibility for the children they fathered — hence the (and it does seem odd, if you think about it; why mention such a thing unless it was happening?) strong condemnation of forced abortions.

One last thing, though. Let the historical actors speak for themselves in this video, “Soviet Women Remember Socialism.”

Categories: History, Revolutionary History, Women

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