Maybe it’s the old Communist in him, maybe he’s always been a closet feminist, or maybe it’s because he just doesn’t want to annoy half of the country’s voters four months before he runs for re-election. Whatever the reason, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally came out as pro-choice on Thursday.
“In the modern world, the decision is up to the woman herself,” Russia’s president said in his annual marathon press conference on Wednesday, which ran to just shy of four hours. Any attempt to suppress it, he added, would only push the practice underground, causing immense damage to women’s health.
Putin also cautioned against tightening the country’s historically liberal laws on abortion any further, saying that any decision on future regulation “must be careful, considered and based on the general mood in society and the moral and ethical norms that have developed in society.”
Putin’s comments—his first clear statement on the issue in 17 years of effectively uninterrupted rule—put a dampener on an increasingly vocal contingent of Russian society that is trying to restrict abortion. That movement, led in part by the Russian Orthodox Church, cites both the moral imperative of protecting unborn life, and the more pragmatic one of sustaining a national birth rate that slumped in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s fertility rate dropped from 17 live births per 1,000 population in 1986 to only 8 by the year 2000.
It has crept up steadily since then and live births outnumbered deaths in 2015—for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, according to the Rosstat statistics office. However, another two-year recession and the poor targeting of new social benefits for mothers has seen the birth rate dip again.
The Pro-Life movement has been increasingly emboldened in recent years. A 2011 change to the law left women with complete freedom to abort in the first trimester of pregnancy, but forced them to give either a social or medical justification for abortions between weeks 12 and 22, and also imposed a period of reflection to allow for second thoughts. And it forced clinics to devote resources to warning women about the possible negative health effects of aborting.
The movement has been trying to build on that ever since, and has at least some supporters in government. The wife of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is a prominent Pro-Life voice, and in June, Mikhail Murashko, the head of Russia’s health care watchdog Rosdravnadzor, spoke of the need to create a nationwide climate of “impatience” towards pregnancy terminations. In October, the Pro-Life (“Za Zhizn’!) movement claimed to have collected 1 million signatures in a petition to ban abortion completely.
As an intermediate step, the Orthodox Church is trying to stop the state health care system from offering terminations (a position it restated after Putin’s press conference on Thursday). The sight of Putin at odds with the church is all the more interesting as the former Communist has actively courted it for years to drum up support for a generally conservative social agenda (exemplified by his controversial laws against the dissemination of gay ‘propaganda’).
Russians have had a complex but often pioneering approach to the abortion issue. The Soviet Union was the first government in Europe to legalize it, (something it did as early as 1920), and the first country in the world to make it generally available through a state health care system free of charge. Huge population loss in World War II led the USSR to tighten the law in the 1950s, but abortion remained in high demand and an essential element of family planning in late Soviet years.