The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to legalize abortion, but its goal was to protect women's health and promote motherhood, not to advance women's rights.
Abortion was a criminal offense punishable by exile or long prison sentences before the Bolshevik Revolution. As part of its effort to reform Russian society, the Soviet government legalized abortion in a decree issued November 18, 1920. Supporters of the decree believed legal abortions were a necessary evil to prevent women from turning to dangerous and unsanitary back-alley abortions. Their goal was not to protect a woman's individual reproductive rights, but to preserve the health of the mother for the common good. Furthermore, the legalization only applied to abortions performed by trained medical personnel, and in 1924 a system was established that prioritized access to legal abortions according to class position and social vulnerability (unemployed and unmarried working women topped the list).
In 1936, the state recriminalized abortion in an attempt to increase the birth rate and to emphasize the value of motherhood. Although the policy shift temporarily reduced the number of abortions, in the long term repression failed to have the desired effect and abortion rates increased. Abortion was again legalized in 1955 on the premise that women had become sufficiently aware of the importance of their maternal roles. Despite the changes over time, Soviet abortion policy consistently focused on protecting women's health and encouraging motherhood. A lack of alternative methods of contraception, however, ensured that Soviet women relied on abortion as their primary means to control reproduction throughout the Soviet period.
See also: family code of 1926; marriage and family life
Goldman, Wendy Z. (1993). Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Sharon A. Kowalsky