One of the central tasks taken on by the Soviet Union after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was to organize determined steps toward women’s equality and ability to participate fully in society as part of advancing the revolution.
Below is a decree issued in 1920 by the Soviet government that made Russia the first country in Europe to decriminalize abortion, as part of advancing the protection of the family and the health of women. Its goal was to organize government services and aid that would make many abortions unnecessary while also assuring no woman could face victimization for having the procedure.
This was part of a broader campaign to involve workers and farmers in advancing women’s full legal equality with men. Laws on women’s rights codified in 1921 guaranteed women the right to divorce, reserved solely for men under the czarist regime. Sex discrimination in employment was outlawed and the eight-hour day enforced. State-run nurseries were provided free of charge as more women entered the industrial workforce. Public health services were made freely available with special attention to women and children, especially for pregnant mothers and those breast feeding.
“The oppressed position of women,” Leon Trotsky, one of the central leaders of the revolution, explained in 1923, “cannot be disposed of merely by declarations, however sincere they may be and even if they are given legislative character. It is necessary that a woman should feel, in ordinary life, in everyday experience, that there are no external restrictions and constraints upon her and no contemptuous or condescending attitude is being taking toward her.
“On the contrary, she must feel that she not only has her ‘rights’ but is being given fraternal collaboration directed toward helping her rise to a higher level.”
1920 Soviet decree on women’s health
In past decades, the number of women resorting to artificial termination of pregnancy has grown both in the West and here in this country. The legislation of all countries combats this evil by punishing the woman who chooses to have an abortion and the doctor who makes it. Without leading to favorable results, this method of combating abortions has driven the operation underground and made the woman a victim of mercenary and ignorant quacks who make a profession of these secret operations. As a result, up to 50% of such woman are infected in the course of operation, and up to 4% of them die.
The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government is conscious of this serious evil to the community. It combats this evil by propaganda against abortions among working women. By working for socialism, and by introducing the protection of maternity and infancy on an extensive scale, it feels assured of achieving the gradual disappearance of this evil.
But as the moral survivals of the past and the difficult economic conditions of the present still compel many women to resort to this operation, the People’s Commissariats of Health and of Justice, anxious to protect the health of the women and considering that the method of repressions in this field fails entirely to achieve this aim, have decided:
- To permit such operations to be made freely and without any charge in Soviet hospitals, where conditions are assured of minimizing the harm of the operation.
- It is absolutely forbidden for anyone but a doctor to carry out this operation.
- Any nurse or midwife found guilty of making such an operation will be deprived of the right to practice, and tried by a People’s Court.
- A doctor carrying out an abortion in his private practice for the purposes of profit will be called to account by a People’s Court.
Semashko, People’s Commissar of Health.
Kurskii, People’s Commissar of Justice.