Will Russia’s restrictions on abortion boost their population?

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Earlier this month the Russian government passed controversial legislation to limit women’s access to abortion.

With a rapidly declining population and the highest abortion rate in the world, the Russian authorities have placed a cap on abortions at 12 weeks and imposed waiting periods, ultrasounds and counselling on those seeking abortion.

But is this the right way to do it?

Whatever your stance on abortion, few believe a high level of abortion is a good thing. Some argue that the easier it is for a woman to get an abortion, the more likely they are to do so, but is this true?

Russia has an alarmingly high abortion rate (73/1000 births) yet it has virtually the same access to abortion as the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest rates in the world (10.4/1000).

If ease of access to abortion will increase the rate of abortion, then why the disparity?

The difference in the abortion rates of Russia and the Netherlands can be explained partly by national attitudes to contraception.

For decades abortion in Russia was almost easier to come by than contraception, with choices being limited to thick standard issue condoms or unreliable IUDs.

Yet as soon as contraception became more widely available abortion rates dropped quickly, falling by 61% between 1988 and 2001 as contraceptive use rose by 74%.

Conversely, the Netherlands have had an open attitude to contraception for decades. Publicly funded family planning, widely available contraception and concerted efforts to tackle to unwanted teenage pregnancies preceded abortion and contributed to their low termination rate.

To some it seems logical that restricting access to abortion would reduce its prevalence, but evidence from other countries suggests otherwise.

Abortion rates remain similar in regions where it is legal and where it is illegal.

In Africa the rate is around 29/1000 though abortion is illegal in many circumstances in most countries. In Europe abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds and the rate is 28/1000.

The lowest rates in the world are in western and northern Europe, where abortion and contraception are widely available (Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute).

Far from reducing the rate of abortion, when you restrict access to this procedure you force women to use illegal and unsafe methods to end their pregnancy. Globally unsafe abortion accounts for 13% of all maternal deaths.

There is some conflicting evidence, however, where the use of contraception has been correlated with an increase in abortion.

In Spain between 1997 – 2007 the use of contraceptive methods increased from49.1% to 79.9% and the abortion rate increased from 5.52 to 11.49 per 1000 women. Similar patterns occurred in in the 1980s in Cuba, USA, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Anti-abortion activists claim that contraception increases casual sex and leads to more unwanted pregnancies.

However others argue that in most of these countries abortion rates declined after an initial rise and that high levels of abortion and contraceptive use are indicative of a desire to reduce family size which outstrips contraceptive availability.

All of the countries listed above have seem a sharp drop in their average familysize. Overall worldwide abortion rates are declining (reducing 17% between 1995 and 2003) despite more countries liberalising their abortion laws than restricting them.

Countries with the greatest declines have not increased restrictions to abortion but have increased access to contraception and family planning. Moreover the region with the lowest abortion rate is western Europe where contraception and family planning are the most accessible.

Forcing women to give birth won’t work. If the Russian government wants to reduce abortion and boost the population they should be looking to countries like Sweden for ideas.

Sweden has successfully boosted its population through generous parental benefits and improved childcare conditions, making it easier for women to combine work and motherhood.

Though Russia has gone some way to improve the conditions for mothers, critics say it has not gone far enough.

Feminist groups and physicians held a week long protest when the measures were announced, arguing the state should support single mothers and provide better parental benefits if it wanted to encourage a population boost.

In order to reduce the rate of abortion you need to tackle unwanted pregnancy at its root. If you give women the ability to control their family size and space their pregnancies you will reduce the amount of unwanted pregnancies.

But contraception is not 100% effective and access to safe abortion must be available.

Those who, like the Russian government, believe that you can stop women having abortions by making them harder to get, are seriously ill-informed.

Give women access to family planning, contraception and education and you can tackle unwanted pregnancy at its root.

For Russia, there are more humane ways to boost dwindling populations than forcing women to go through with unwanted pregnancies.

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