Contraceptive prevalence rate: 68 percent( percent of women aged 15-44 (2011). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

For a long time few people used contraceptives, sex education was virtually non existent and abortion was the most common method of birth control. In the early 1990s, fewer than 60 percent of Russian women practiced a contraception method other than withdrawal or the rhythm method. In Later, condom and IUD factories shut down due to lack of hard currency needed to import latex and other raw materials. In December 1997, a streetcar called “Desire” began operating in Moscow. On board was a doctor who gave free advise on contraception. “Galoshes” is a slang term used for condoms in both Russia and China.

Unwanted pregnancies are common because of the limited availability and substandard quality of contraceptives and a reluctance to discuss sexual issues openly at home or to provide sex education at school. No social stigma is attached to children born out of wedlock, and unmarried mothers receive maternity benefits. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the mid-1990s, modern forms of contraception were unavailable or unknown to most Russian women. The Soviet Union legalized abortion for medical reasons in 1955 and overall in 1968. But information about Western advances in birth control--and all modern means of birth control--was systematically kept from the public throughout the remaining Soviet decades. As a result of that policy, today's Russian gynecologists lack the training to advise women on contraception, and public knowledge of the subject remains incomplete or simply mistaken. Even in Moscow in the mid-1990s, most contraceptives were paid for by voluntary funds and international charities. In the early 1990s, an estimated 22 percent of women of childbearing age were using contraceptives; the percentage was much lower in rural areas.

Contraception in the Soviet Era

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “One of the most disturbing consequences of the lack of sexual culture in Soviet society has been the exceedingly limited contraception culture, as a result of which induced abortion was, and remains today, the major method of birth control and family planning (Kon 1995, 61-62, 178-193). [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

“Already in the early part of this century, Russian doctors officially recognized that the development of effective contraceptive methods was the only alternative to induced abortion with all its dangerous consequences. Soviet medicine also understood this. In 1920, induced abortion was legalized. Until the end of the 1920s, the U.S.S.R. was a leading world country in its family policies. Nevertheless, in 1936, induced abortion was banned and no other means of birth control introduced. After the ban was lifted in 1955, induced abortion remained the principal form of birth control. ==

According to Andrei Popov (1992), Soviet family planning was distinguished by the following general traits right up to 1988: 1) Although the right to family planning was formally proclaimed de jure in accordance with international conventions, this right was never de facto realized; 2) Services were inaccessible or nonexistent owing to a total lack of information, an absence of qualified personnel and specialized medical services, and the unavailability of modern contraceptives; 3) The only easily accessible method of family planning was and continues to be induced abortion; and 4) Family planning behavior varies widely by region, according to the ethnographic, demographic, and socioeconomic realities within each region. ==

“Without the necessary scientific information, modern contraceptives, and the ability to use them, the Soviet public was doomed to employ traditional and largely ineffective methods. Until 1987, the Soviet Ministry of Health conducted a major propaganda campaign against oral contraceptives. Most Soviet citizens are relatively ignorant about the more sophisticated forms of contraception.

Percentage of Users of Specific Contraceptive Methods (Method, Year of Survey Publication, 1965-1966, 1978, 1982, 1983): A) Withdrawal, 32, 34, 14, 25; B) Rhythm (calendar), -, 18, 28, 27; C) Condom, 46, 42, 22, 24; D) Diaphragm, -, 1, 1, 1; E) IUD, -, 8, 11, 10; F) Oral contraceptives, -, 4, 4, 2; H) Spermicides, 1, -, 3, 3; I) Rhythm (temperature), -, -, 2, -; J) Douche, -, 23, 17, 8; ) Combinations, 12, -, -, 12. [Source: Moscow Sample Surveys, 1965-1983, Note: Respondents were allowed to indicate more than one method used.

Family Planning and Contraceptive Use in the 1990s

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “In 1989, a voluntary association, The Family and Health, was organized and affiliated with International Planned Parenthood World Federation to raise public awareness of family-planning options and improve the image of contraceptive methods other than abortion. Since 1991, it is supplemented by the Russian Family Planning Association. Mass media, particularly television, have begun to deal directly and positively with birth-control issues. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

“Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this work is not very effective. According to the VCIOM 1992 survey, most women indicated that they had used some form of contraception during the last five years (Kon 1995,275). Only 18 percent did not use any contraception. Most likely not to use contraception are women between the ages of 15 and 20 (40 percent), the unmarried (29 percent), the poorly educated (24 percent), and those living in rural areas (22 percent). ==

“Modern contraception tends to be popular largely with the younger (under age 25) and better-educated women, while the rest commonly employ traditional, less reliable, but more accessible methods. A 1990 survey of Soviet-German students (average age 25) showed that 15 percent of the female students had already had an abortion, 6 percent more than once. In 1992, 297,029 Russian teenage girls had an abortion; of these 16,320 were illegal. ==

“The most-preferred contraceptive method was the IUD, most favored by half of the women and the second choice for 25 percent. The pill was less popular, favored by 18 percent as first choice and 25 percent as second choice. The pill is still believed to be unsafe and unreliable. The condom was the third-ranking first choice. ==

Contraceptive Methods Used During the Last Five Years (in Percentages, Method, Frequency Used: Always, Sometimes, Not Used: A) IUD, 37, 11, 52; B) Condom, 18, 51, 31; C) Rhythm, 17, 31, 52; D) Coitus interruptus, 14, 46, 40; E) Vaginal douche, 10, 29, 61; F) Pill, 10, 19, 71; G) Spermicidal, 2, 14, 84; H) Spermicidal + condom, 1, 4, 95; I) Diaphragm, 0, 1, 99. ==

Problems with Birth Control in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Since 1987, the negative consequences of this situation have begun to be officially acknowledged, highlighting two obvious problems: the material shortage of modern hormonal, chemical, and barrier contraceptives, and the lack of information and psychological sophistication regarding sexual and reproductive practices. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

“In 1993, experts of the World Health Organization (WHO) found that both physicians and women in St. Petersburg were convinced that hormonal pills are terribly dangerous. And only 11 percent of Russian gynecologists recognized the right of teenagers to confidentiality, a condition sine qua non of the effective contraceptive services for teenagers. ==

“The government survey in 1990 demonstrated that 30.5 percent of all girls under age 15 had no knowledge whatsoever about contraception. In the 16- to 17-year-old age group, this percentage was 24.6, and among 18 to 23 year olds, 11 percent. Over 96 percent of 16- to 17-year-old girls never used any contraceptives. Most teenage sex - and their sexual activity is growing - still goes unprotected. ==

“As a consequence of the lack of contraceptives, the number of unplanned pregnancies and unwanted births is growing, despite the prevalence of abortion. According to national statistics, the rate of extramarital births was about 10 percent in 1987; in 1992, it was 17 percent. The rates are even higher in the largest cities. The rate of premarital conception of firstborn children among married couples in Leningrad rose from 27 percent in 1963 to 38 percent in 1978. Similarly, one study in the early 1980s found that, of 1,000 first pregnancies reported in a large Russian city, 272 were aborted, 140 births occurred out of wedlock, and 271 births took place in the first months of marriage - leaving only 317 children actually conceived within marriage (Kon 1995, 169, 181-182). ==

Abortion in Russia

Russia has one of the world's highest abortion rates but the rate is lower than it once was. For a long time about two thirds of all pregnancies ended in an abortion and Russian women on average had between three and eight abortions, more than double the number of live births.

In 1995 some 225 abortions were performed for every 100 live births, up from a rate of 196 per 100 in 1991. In 2004 the number of abortions (1.6 million) exceeded the number of live births (1.5 million) but the ratio of abortions to live births was much lower than before. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

According to one study, 14 percent of the women in Russia with sixteen or more years of school had undergone eight to ten abortions. The number of abortions is much higher among Russian women than among Muslims and other minority groups, however. Statistically, the higher her social status and the extent of her Russification, the more likely a Muslim woman is to seek an abortion. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia and the Soviet Union had the highest abortion rates in the world. Because of the persistent lack of contraceptive devices in both Soviet and independent Russia (and the social taboo on discussion of contraception and sex in general, which continued in the 1990s), for most women abortion remains the only reliable method of avoiding unwanted pregnancy. In the mid-1990s, there were 98 ninety-eight abortions for every 1,000 women of childbearing age per year--a yearly average of 3.5 million. *

History of Abortion in Russia

Fertility in Russia has been adversely affected by the common practice of using abortion as a primary means of birth control. In 1920 the Soviet Union was the first country to legalize abortion. Sixteen years later it was prohibited, except in certain circumstances, to compensate for the millions of lives lost in the collectivization of agriculture and the widespread famine that followed in the 1930s. The practice was fully legalized once again in 1968, and an entire industry evolved offering abortion services and encouraging women to use them. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Soviet Union legalized abortion for medical reasons in 1955 and overall in 1968. Abortions have traditionally been one of the most common methods of birth control. In the Communist-era they were easy to get and many women resorted to them because contraceptives were hard to get. It was not unusual for women to have six or seven abortions. Laws on the books made abortions available on demand in states hospital. Women that had abortion were handled in routine fashion and were generally released about two hours after they were admitted.

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “The total annual number of abortions in the late 1980s, according to official data, amounted to 6 to 7 million. That was virtually a fifth or even a fourth of all abortions performed in the world. The number of “backstreet abortions” was estimated at 12 percent of the total, according to official estimates, but at 50 to 70 percent according to independent experts. Thus, the aggregate number of abortions in the U.S.S.R. came to 10 to 11 million a year. Even without these adjustments, the number of abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1985 surpassed by six to ten times the analogous figures for western Europe. On average, every woman in Russia has four to five abortions during her lifetime (Kon 1995, 61-62, 73-75, 178-193).. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ]

Unsafe Abortions in Russia

The conditions under which abortions are performed often are primitive. In the 1990s, it was estimated that nearly three-quarters of abortions took place after the first trimester of pregnancy, involving substantially greater maternal risk than those performed earlier. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Although abortions became easily available for most women, an estimated 15 percent of the Soviet total were performed illegally in private facilities. An estimated one-quarter of maternal fatalities result from abortion procedures. Poor procedures also result in many women being unable to have children.

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “According to the St. Petersburg Yuventa Reproduction Center, in spite of the general availability of professional abortion services, 80 percent of women who contact the abortion clinics do so only after they have tried to do something, often dangerous, themselves.” [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ]

The chances of a woman dying from pregnancy, childbirth or abortion in Russia are 1 in 1,021. In contrast the odds are 1 in 5,669 in the United States; 1 in 7 in Mali (the worst in the world; and 17,361 in Italy (the best in the world). [Source: Population Action Council]

Unsafe abortions per 1,000 women according to the World Health Organization: 1) Latin America an the Caribbean (41); 2) Former Soviet Union (30); Africa (26); Oceania (17); Asia (12); Europe (2); North American (less than 1).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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