In light of the upcoming referendum on the eighth amendment, a discussion that is sorely lacking is that on the origin of abortion and its history abroad. Surely before making a momentous legal decision that will forever change the societal fabric and constitution of our country, we should look to the historical experiences of those nations which have had abortion on-demand the longest?
The first country in the world to legalise abortion was the Soviet Union, which legalised and fervently endorsed the practice in the year 1920. It was among the earliest major legislative changes passed by the communist government, so early in fact that it was enacted before they had even won complete victory in the Russian Civil War, a period which resulted in the deaths of up to twelve million people.
After nearly a decade of war and strife, they made the decision to legalise abortion as an economic necessity and a measure to reduce the large population which the communist government found difficult to pacify, or even to feed for that matter. It was legalised on request for no charge, and hospitals quickly became severely congested due to the demand for abortion. The situation was so utterly dire in the USSR of the 1920s that hospitals had to open dedicated abortion clinics in order to free beds for sick patients. The number of abortions was in the millions yearly, only a few short years after its legalisation.
Soviet doctors became so concerned by the enormous rate of abortion procedures being performed that they quickly began restricting the practice. Priority was to be given to those in poverty and one could not have an abortion more than every six months. Between the astronomical rates of abortion, the mass executions and the oft government orchestrated famines to reduce local populations, tens of millions of people lost their lives in this early Soviet period.
As one would expect, the previously booming population growth rate collapsed completely. This was so worrying to Soviet leaders, Stalin especially, that abortion was once again banned in 1936. However after it was introduced in 1920 it had become common practice with millions performed every year; thus the ban did little to decrease the rates. Once abortion had its foot in the door it became nigh impossible to get it out again.
After the death of Stalin in 1956 abortion was once again legalised with minimal restriction across the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. During the late 1950s and 1960s the Soviet Union had by far the highest rate of abortion in the world. Exact numbers are still not known due to the opaque government practices of the USSR but best estimates judge 6-7 million abortions to have been performed every year. More than the entire population of the island of Ireland. So high were the rates during this period that more abortions were performed than children born, and by the end of the Brezhnev era in 1982 the population was below replacement rate.
This may sound utterly horrifying, but sadly it gets even worse. After the collapse of the USSR and the decade of chaos and devastation that ensued in its former territories (the 1990s), abortion rates skyrocketed once again. The newly independent Russian Federation, which possessed roughly half the population of the former Soviet Union, maintained a massive level of abortion at 3.6 million procedures per year. Thankfully this did decline as the years went on, but so did the number of pregnancies overall.
Ultimately at its worst point, there were four times as many abortions as live births in Russia. During the campaign here we have regularly seen the statistic that 1 in 5 pregnancies in Britain result in an abortion, and while still devastatingly high, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the statistic of four times more abortions than births that Russia experienced in its worst years.
Since the advent of Vladimir Putin coming to power in Russia there has been a gradual recovery of the nation from the abyss of massive corruption, financial and societal ruin. This recovery has also seen measures taken to restrict abortion, as well as a massive resurgent pro-life movement emerging in the wake of the Soviet downfall. In 2011 a law was passed limiting abortion on demand to 12 weeks and twice that for special circumstances. A law very similar (although slightly more restrictive) to the one proposed by our own government. Thanks to this and other measures abortion has decreased massively, although it still remains high by European standards.
Another country that experienced a similar liberal abortion regime under communist rule and since moved to restrict it is Poland, which removed any on-demand option from its abortion legislation. In recent years there have been moves to ban it entirely with exception to the health of the mother. A petition in 2011 that first proposed it garnered half a million signatures and support for such a move has only increased since.
In Russia similar things are happening, with pro-life marches now becoming a regular occurrence and a petition to ban abortion accruing an astonishing million signatures – in a country where online petitioning has a minimal history. Societal attitudes have also shifted massively, with 35% of Russians now deeming abortion on demand completely unacceptable – up from 12% twenty years ago. The same position has the support of 55% of Poles.
Now that we’re aware of the history, we must ask why two countries which previously had some of the most liberal and extreme abortion laws in the world are now railing against the practice and attempting to limit it? It should be a fairly simplistic question to answer given the horrific history of the practice. While we will never know the exact number of children whose lives were suddenly brought to an end in the Soviet Union and later Russia, we can be sure the number is well over 100 million, after all it has been 60 million in the United States merely since 1973. 100 million individuals who could have lived to make the world a brighter and better place, 100 million babies whose lives were unnecessarily ended and left untold numbers of mothers damaged and distressed.
We are on the cusp of deciding whether or not this devastating practice should be acceptable in our great nation, yet there has been virtually no media coverage given to the history of abortion abroad. Those who seek to repeal ought to be fully aware of the experience and knowledge of the countries and peoples with the longest history of it, and who were most damaged by it. The complete media silence on this topic means that the true reality and consequence of abortion are kept hidden away from public view. A silence which all but ensures that a large portion of the electorate will stumble blindly into the voting booth, ticking yes to the next bloody cycle of history.