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Protecting the Right to Abortion in Ukraine

By Kateryna Ruban

Thanks to the Soviet legacy of a state-protected right to abortion, Ukrainian women can legally terminate pregnancy in the first 12 weeks on request and up to the 22nd week if certain medical conditions apply. Yet every few years, a new bill appears that rings an alarm of moral panic, linking dubious data on abortion to national population decline. Last month, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers submitted a proposal to criminalize abortions, except in cases where the fetus has no chance of survival after birth, is a threat to the woman’s life, or is the result of rape. Based on the argument that life begins at conception, the bill opens with a conspiracy theory: “In some countries,” it writes, there is a criminal “hunt” for aborted fetal tissue that leads to “criminal profit-seekers [who] propagate abortions.” While who, exactly, is hunting for this “aborted material” remains unclear, the bill demonstrates that in Ukraine, simplistic religious arguments and conspiracy theories eclipse any sophisticated debate on the nature of life and death raised by new medical technologies.

Given the issues of war, corruption scandals, and economic downturn in Ukraine, the abortion debate does not make headlines like it does in the U.S. Stakes are low in raising an abortion argument: Everyone realizes that the recent proposal is not worth any feverish enthusiasm, since the bill has an extremely slim chance of becoming law. Tellingly, the text of the bill combines disparate arguments in a way that lacks coherence, references, and logic. But the Ukrainian bill was the brainchild of Dmytro Golubov, a lawmaker from the young ruling party—not the right-wing opposition, which has attempted to criminalize abortion multiple times in the past. While most people in Ukraine see this hectic legislative move as a ploy to turn attention away from more pressing concerns, recent U.S. politics offer a warning that what used to be a law, a right, or even common sense supported by public opinion, can quickly turn into a paragraph in a history textbook.

In Ukraine, the war and continuing economic deprivation are further undermining the position of women, who, despite displacement, rising sexual violence, and unemployment, are still required to be “good” mothers. While the Soviet Union provided some social and medical welfare to allow women to fully participate in society as both mothers and workers, post-Soviet Ukrainian governments have offered very little beyond rhetorical praise of the joy of motherhood, which is framed in terms of its benefit to the nation. For the last two decades, the topic of abortion has been at the disposal of the Orthodox Church, and is used on occasion by right-wing politicians to garner media attention and approval of the clergy.

Ukrainian law and public opinion on abortion differ from that of Poland, where, last fall, widespread protests confronted the right-wing ruling party’s proposal to ban abortions entirely, and that of Russia, where the Church and grass-roots religious movements regularly use images of aborted fetuses to raise moral panic. In Ukraine, the Church is not a single institution, but at least three separate and rival bodies that have slightly different views on abortion, preventing the formation of a unified pro-life movement. Still, all of the branches agree that only priests have authority to address the topic of abortion—not doctors or politicians.

For now, the proposal’s political future is not promising, but it should not be ignored as innocuous. A few years ago, one could hardly imagine that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence would be a leading figure at the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., promising radical changes to current reproductive legislation. In the past, pro-choice Americans often saw the limits to women’s reproductive rights in certain U.S. states as a temporary retreat that would soon be reversed. But today, even Roe v. Wade does not look so secure. The landmark 1973 ruling that made it unconstitutional for U.S. states to ban abortion could just as easily become history. Here, the Soviet Union sets the precedent—in the tumultuous decades under Stalin, the Soviet decree of 1920, which allowed on-demand and free-of-charge hospital abortions, quickly dissolved.

Debates in the U.S. about abortion are grounded no longer in the opinions of medical experts on an embryo’s tissue development or statistical data about the safety of the procedure, but rather in strong political emotions that ask for simple answers to very complicated questions. Likewise, in the current Ukrainian bill, arguments framed in religious, medical, and legal terms are all based on the premise of abortion as torture and murder of an unborn human being. Despite asserting that the ban is based on arguments of “contemporary embryology,” the authors make the political claim that only the state has the right to determine when life begins. When the definition of life, women’s health, fetal tissue research, and other abortion-related issues become dizzying, only the simplified answers matter politically. Philosophical questions about life cannot be answered by scientific research or medical science alone, but the bill’s architects manipulate scientific findings to align with pro-life values, and then present their conclusions as definitive.

Here Ukrainian and U.S. lawmakers use the same tactics—they ignore the last 150 years of abortion history, as well as recent data, which illustrates that the number of abortions and complications during abortion procedures have gradually decreased over time in both countries. In each case, women are thoughtlessly labeled as “emotional,” “uneducated,” “irresponsible,” and in need of moral and legal guidance from state legislators. Politicians continue to talk about women as a single group, when they in fact have a wide range needs and interests, and need not provide a reason to their doctors or to anyone else if they choose to abort. But even more importantly, the current political climate on abortion in the U.S. demonstrates how the dominant political trend can quickly turn from pro-choice to pro-life. The U.S. ushers in a warning for Ukraine, which could just as easily fall victim to the same fate.

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Kateryna Ruban is a Ph.D. candidate in history at New York University focusing on Soviet public health care, particularly maternity care, as well as the role of Soviet doctors in Sovietization and modernization.

[Photo courtesy of Радость]

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Anonymous's picture
Kateryna Ruban's article on abortion in Ukraine


Ms. Ruban calls for common sense, logic, and a scientific approach on the issue of abortion in Ukraine. Common sense and science recognize that a fetus is human and that it is alive. Logic concludes that it is therefore human life. Fundamental ethics requires that the destruction of innocent human life be prevented. Yes, the issue is complicated. But complexity does not justify obfuscation.
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