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‘Church and state have long since fused together’ Why Russian religious leaders’ efforts to restrict abortion may soon succeed
Last week, at a plenary session of the Russian State Duma, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko laid out his extremely regressive vision of what a woman’s life trajectory should look like. In Murashko’s view, women who pursue education and careers before having children are shirking their “responsibility” to their country and its future demographic success. The statements came amid a push by the ministry to restrict Russians’ access to medication abortion; according to the independent outlet Verstka, however, the real instigator of the initiative is the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia’s religious authorities have long opposed abortion in all forms, but they’ve achieved a new level of political influence since the start of the full-scale war as Moscow has abandoned even the pretense of a separation between church and state. Meduza summarizes Verstka’s report.
The Russian Health Ministry is losing ground in its standoff with the Russian Orthodox Church on the issue of abortion, knowledgeable sources told journalists from Verstka. The Russian authorities are poised to limit access to medication abortions in the near future, but the sources say the church would like to secure more serious restrictions as well.
By the end of this year, the government may restrict the sale of medical abortion products, according to two sources familiar with ongoing discussions about the initiative. Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko has said as much, and the Health Ministry has reportedly prepared a draft order to add the abortion medications Misoprostol and Mifepristone to its list of controlled substances. At the same time, according to the sources, the decision has been challenging for the authorities on a political level, and the initiative’s biggest advocate and beneficiary is the Russian Orthodox Church. In the future, the sources said, the laws governing abortions in Russia could very well become even more restrictive, and could potentially expand to include the removal of emergency contraception drugs from public sale altogether.
One source said the church is “pushing through” the anti-abortion measures, and that the current moment is an especially opportune one. While before the full-scale war Russia at least pretended to uphold the principles of a secular state, now the authorities are trying to embed the purported “traditional values” of the Russian Orthodox Church ever deeper into the country’s political and legislative agenda, he said. The church was always a major player in Russian politics, according to the source, but in recent months, it seems to have “received a carte blanche” and can now “bend [other parties] over its knee” in many policy discussions. The most obvious example has been the controversial transfer of the painter Andrey Rublev’s famous Trinity icon from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery to the city’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, said the source. “And that’s only the beginning,” he added. “We’re no longer waiting for the fusion of church and state; that happened a long time ago.”
This isn’t the first time the Russian Orthodox Church has lobbied for specific policies. In 2022, for example, church leader Patriarch Kirill urged Vladimir Putin not to support a bill to prevent domestic violence.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always opposed abortions in any form, a source who attended meetings on the topic told Verstka, while the Health Ministry has traditionally opposed the church. According to the source, the ministry has long held the position that banning abortions does nothing to make them less frequent or increase the country’s birth rate (claims that have been borne out in other countries that have restricted abortion). “In other words, under the current circumstances, the Health Ministry can lower the number of abortions by having doctors work with women who come to antenatal clinics and talk them out of seeking the treatment by explaining that it poses risks to their health and that they shouldn’t do it,” he said. “If abortion is banned, the authorities will have no way to monitor the process, and it will leave the legal realm, while the risks to women [seeking illegal abortions] are more likely to exacerbate the demographic situation.”
Russian Orthodox Church representatives such as Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov (who is reputed to be Putin’s personal confessor) have advocated for bans and restrictions on abortion in meetings with Russian officials. Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana Medvedeva, has provided political support for the clergy. Medvedeva is the president of the Foundation for Social and Cultural Initiatives, an organization that, among other things, organizes the annual anti-abortion campaign “Give Me Life.” According to a source, the group’s position is that abortion is a moral issue. “In a country that safeguards traditional values, we should be raising highly moral people, and infanticide is unacceptable. In other words, it’s an ideological approach,” he said. “This side has never used the argument about the demographic growth that an abortion ban would bring. They don’t make calculations like that. For them, this is a values issue and an ideological one. ‘It should be banned because it shouldn’t happen.’”
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Until recently, the church and the Health Ministry took different views on the question of why abortion should be restricted, the source noted. After the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, however, the church’s views and those of the Health Ministry began to converge, according to a third source who’s familiar with the authorities’ discussions surrounding abortion. “[The initiative to restrict abortions] is being pushed through by the Russian Orthodox Church, of course,” he said. “The Health Ministry has hard numbers on the improvement of the situation [of birth rates in Russia in recent years]. But now that the spineless head of the Health Ministry got a negative reaction to his speech, he’ll be willing to go all the way.”
‘Nobody liked it’
The source was referring to a recent statement by Mikhail Murashko at a State Duma plenary session in which the minister spoke disapprovingly of women who pursue their education and careers before deciding whether to have children. “[Women delaying childbirth] causes a lot of problems: infertility, miscarriages, IVF. It also reduces the amount of time for women to have their third and fourth child,” said the minister.
According to Verstka’s source, Murashko’s statement provoked outrage “at the very highest level,” because women, including those in the government, saw it as an “attempt to return them to the kitchen” and to deprive them of their fundamental rights. “Murashko [tried to please] the boss [Putin], but his attempt failed — nobody liked it,” said a source from the Russian government. “So now he’s making a big fuss and showing his devotion.” The episode was reminiscent of the Defense Ministry’s recent statements in opposition to lawmakers’ initiative to ban gender changes, which ended with the ministry being “worn down,” according to Verstka’s source.
Two sources told Verstka that they believe the reproductive rights situation in Russia could get even worse in the future. The restrictions being discussed right now only involve abortion medications that contain Misoprostol and Mifepristone. However, these substances are also ingredients in emergency contraception productions, if in smaller doses. According to the medical information site Medvestnik, the Health Ministry’s order doesn’t mention dosage, which means the emergency pills could disappear from pharmacy shelves as well (or they could become considerably more difficult to find). Additionally, similar medications that don’t contain those products could be removed from circulation in the future as well, according to the sources. “If the fight moves to an ideological level, nobody will stop, and the restrictions will continue,” one source stressed. “Once the government starts invading women’s beds, it’s unlikely to stop voluntarily.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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