Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Blue States and Red Abortion

America should learn what it can from the Soviet abortion regime and the breakdown of families under communism.

(By Lyudmila2509/Shutterstock)

In the post-Roe United States, proponents of abortion will try to make abortion so common that it will be difficult to ban the practice. The experience of the Soviet Union, the country that boasted the highest abortion rate in the world, provides a roadmap for how abortion supporters may try to achieve this goal.

The Soviet Union recorded 6.7 abortions per woman, with one estimated illegal procedure for every 2.7 legal ones. But abortion was not always legal in the USSR. While the Bolsheviks claimed the dubious honor of being the first to legalize abortion after the 1917 revolution, they soon started limiting and regulating the practice, eventually outlawing it under Stalin, before reversing the ban in 1953. 


The Soviet abortion “debate” looked very different from ours. There was no mention of the “right to choose” or the personhood of the unborn. However, the American defense of “women’s choice” is in certain ways analogous to the economic motivations that preoccupied the Soviets. On the other hand, even the USSR understood that at 12 weeks the baby is undeniably a human being, and limited access to the procedure accordingly.

The Soviet abortion conversation was predicated upon secular, communist assumptions. It was oriented toward building utopia here on Earth. In the run up to the USSR’s 1936 abortion ban, the Bolshevik journalist Aron Soltz articulated a pagan anti-abortion position: 

At the time when the bourgeois nations don’t know what to do about their people, where to find work, how to feed them, we don’t have enough people. We need to do so much! […] We need more and more new fighters, builders of that life. We need people. […] Abortion is the evil heritage of the order under which people lived by their narrow personal interests instead of the life of the collective. […] In our life, there can be no break between the personal and the public.

In other words, abortion was an act of individual defiance of the collective. After World War Two, when the USSR was going through a baby boomlet and communal apartments filled up with newborns, the gods of Soviet Communism no longer demanded new people, so “the collective” legalized abortion. 

Considering the rhetoric of group rights that pervades American institutions, the U.S. is becoming increasingly collectivist. Yet when collectivism ruled the day in the USSR, the idea that the personal is political, which we now identify with the American feminist movement, was used to advance the goal of banning abortion—the very opposite of the rallying cry of the women’s movement today.


While professional feminists today argue from a position of wealth and privilege, most Soviet households lived paycheck to paycheck. Lucky families shared quarters with in-laws, and the unlucky ones with strangers. Bringing another human into a crowded flat where multiple adults already struggled to put food on the table was an unpleasant proposition. It was made more difficult by the fact that the mother was obligated to work by economic necessity and, at times, by law.

Coming home, women worked second shift shopping, cooking, cleaning and otherwise caring for their families. All of it had to be done without modern amenities like automobiles and disposable diapers. Natalya Baranskaya’s 1968 novella A Week Like Any Other describes a harried Soviet woman working the double shift. Purely out of instinct, its protagonist Olya chose to have a second baby when she can barely handle the first. A third was out of the question. The fact of economic hardship was used to suggest that abortion was a natural response to poverty.

The Stalinist period also saw a deterioration of intergenerational trust, sowed by the 1932 show trial of the Morozov family, which helped prop up the Soviet abortion regime. The NKVD, or the former KGB, concocted a story about the Morozov clan killing the adolescent Pavlik Morozov for allegedly denouncing his father to the authorities. Soviet propaganda turned Pavlik into a martyr, encouraging the Soviet children to follow his path. Parents didn’t know if they could trust their sons and daughters.

The result was not just that parents stopped having political discussions with their kids; uncomfortable conversations about sex disappeared from family life, too. In a 1991 opinion poll cited by James Riordan in Sex and Russian Society, 87 percent of responders said that their parents never talked to them about sex. Children were educated by the street, with predictable results. 

That distrust, then, spawned many illegal abortions. Afraid to tell their parents, or deal with public shaming that would inevitably result from visiting a government abortion clinic, teenage girls went to underground abortionists or tried to kill their children alone. Among the savage folk abortion methods were jumping off a wardrobe, drinking a solution of milk and iodine, and placing an onion at the uterus opening.

Owing in part to its prevalence, abortion in the USSR was viewed as a morally neutral, sometimes necessary procedure. Frequent use of legal abortion, however, guaranteed neither safety nor privacy of the mother. It did, however, make a ban an impractical proposition.

In the USSR, the traditional male role of provider was usurped by the state. Soviet men and women were assigned jobs, most of them dead-end, and were paid just enough to survive. However exhausted the women were running their households, they cherished the opportunity to make a difference in private matters. Men, for their part, drank a lot, which lead to early death from accidents, alcohol poisoning, and poor health. The ratio of men to women, which has been low since World War Two, never recovered.  

Finding themselves in high demand, and knowing that women had little in a way of legal recourse, Russian-speaking men didn’t fear the consequences of their actions. Some cheated, others started parallel families. Wives and girlfriends tolerated infidelities just to have a man around. Women were in a poor position to negotiate the sexual act and bore most of the consequences. Abortion was considered a women’s issue—unless her partner wanted it and she didn’t, that is. 

Many of these features of the Soviet abortion regime are seen in America today. Consider intergenerational distrust. In the U.S., we are witnessing the custody of our children’s bodies transferred from parents to the government. Public-school students are being pushed through clandestine “sex changes,” and the California Senate is readying a bill that would allow kids as young as 15 to consent to immunizations. Do you think a girl primed to experiment with her body in secret will confide in her parents when her sex life goes awry? This, and factors like it, are what made abortion common in the USSR.

But no reasonable human being wants to make abortion common. Only a poorly run society kills its unborn children en masse. In America, we need to affirm the opposite: faith, humanity, autonomy, responsibility, and strong families.