In the early 20th
century, doctors turned abortion into a highly politicized topic that allowed them to debate the essential “illness” and large-scale “cures” of the late Russian Empire. In 1920, the Bolshevik decree “On the Protection of Women’s Health” was the first in the world to legalize abortion, and it became the hallmark of Soviet state concern over female health and emancipation. Abortion was officially defined as a social phenomenon and a matter of working-class interests, but the 1920 decree went much further: while it labeled abortion a “social evil,” it took a revolutionary (albeit short-lived) stance, providing free abortions for all women. The next 70 years of Soviet abortion history were an interplay between seeing abortion as a social phenomenon that should be eliminated and the idea that every woman had the political right to control her reproduction.
Comparing the Soviet case with other Western countries—the US in particular—I will show different ways of politicizing abortion in the 20th and 21st centuries and how the social lens continues to dominate in the arguments of abortion rights supporters. This logic leads to reducing abortion from a political right to a “necessary evil” and goes back to the figure of a woman as victim of her social circumstances and biology, split between her mind and body, and thus not a political subject with rights equal to men’s.
Kateryna Ruban is a PhD candidate in History at New York University. Currently she is a Ukraine in European Dialogue Visiting Fellow at the IWM.