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North Ossetia: Scourge of Back-Street Abortions

Conservative society prompts pregnant unmarried women to opt for risky, illegal terminations.
By Yana Voitova
Angela is 24. Her boyfriend does not know she is pregnant. “I would rather die than tell him, and then he turns round and tells me he’s leaving,” said the girl. She is only three weeks pregnant. There is still time to decide whether to keep the baby or have an early abortion. The doctor has given her several days to think about it.

According to data from the medical statistics department of North Ossetia’s ministry of health, in 2004 there were 5,150 abortions and 4,864 last year. The republic’s chief medical officer, obstetrician and gynaecologist Svetlana Kokoyeva, says the number of abortions is going down each year and that fewer are performed in Ossetia than in central Russia.

But North Ossetia is a more conservative society than other parts of Russia and one gynaecologist who did not wish to give her name said that for every three legal abortions here, there is one back-street one.

Moreover, IWPR understands that at least 200 women travel to North Ossetia for abortions from neighbouring republics each year. The reason is generally that women are worried they might meet a relative if they go to hospital in their home town.

Russia’s abortion rate reached a peak in Soviet times, according to Taira Gutsaeva, an experienced gynaecologist. “Back then, it was considered shameful to talk about contraception in Russia, and still more so in North Ossetia,” she said, adding that the drop in the number of terminations is the result of more widespread knowledge about contraception.

Under Russian law abortion is legal for an embryo of up to 12 weeks, although thereafter it is legal in certain circumstances.

However, many people strongly disapprove of abortion in North Ossetia. Taimuraz Khutiev, deputy head of Styr Nykhas, the Council of Elders of Ossetia, condemns it fiercely, “I have said more than once that we should be concerned about the nation’s gene pool.

“Maybe I am being blunt, but abortion is a real crime. To subject oneself to such an operation is to commit a crime.

“And those who perform them at home, who carry late term abortions, who do not try to persuade mothers against such a step, who are not thinking of the future of the nation, only about their own financial gain, must be judged harshly. Of course I am not talking about cases in which women are forced to terminate pregnancies for medical reasons.”

Social pressures mean that illegal abortions are performed at home and they can sometimes be fatal for the women involved.

No figures are available for how many deaths occur, but Nina, who was in her thirties, suffered this fate. She had one child whom she was bringing up single-handedly. She divorced her husband when it was still small. When she found out she was pregnant again, Nina hoped her boyfriend would marry her. In the fifth month of her pregnancy, realising he was not going to, she decided to have an abortion at home.

Nina died from heavy blood loss. This happened a year ago, but many gynaecologists still talk about it, while insisting it is a rare case.

The figures show that very few unmarried women in North Ossetia decide to have a child. According to data from the republic’s registry office, of 1,278 children born at the beginning of 2006, only 66 belonged to single mothers.

“If my daughter got pregnant, I don’t know how I would survive,” said Inna, who lives in Vladikavkaz. “I would probably send her to my mother in the country, as far away from the neighbours and their wagging tongues as possible.”

So it is not surprising that Angela decided to have a termination. When her boyfriend found out she was pregnant, he said nothing, gave her the money for the operation, and took her to hospital. When the doctor suggested she talk to her parents about it, Angela burst into tears, saying she was worried her mother would throw her out if she found out she was pregnant.

When the doctor asked her whether she could have used protection, Angela was embarrassed. “I can’t even imagine going into the chemist’s and buying contraceptives,” she said. “What if the shop assistant turned out to be some distant relative and I met her later at a family gathering?”

“The mentality in the republic is that young women are not allowed to talk openly about their sex lives or to buy contraceptives. For this reason, the majority of abortions are carried out on girls who are not married,” said Dr Gutsayeva.

Partly because of the secrecy surrounding it, terminations can be lucrative in North Ossetia.

Natasha, whose own doctor performed two terminations on her before her wedding, one of them in the later stages of pregnancy, said, “ Doctors who perform illegal abortions do well. They earn at least 1,000 US dollars a month (when the average salary in Vladikavkaz is 150 dollars).”

“Do you want an abortion?” was the first question the doctor asked 26-year-old Alesya who had come for a check-up, and who was married.

“What’s so surprising?” asked Zalina, a midwife. “Doctors get paid little and girls are having sex at 16 now. And why would they want a child at that age? So we help them by giving them a ‘mini-abortion’. And if we put the same question about terminating the pregnancy to married women, it’s just out of habit.”

A bill is currently before the Russian Duma proposing changes and amendments to tighten the current legislation to “protect the lives of unborn children”.

But according to psychologist Diana Bideyeva, it is impossible to return to the abortion laws of the past now.

“Women today are going into business and politics. For many of them, the family is no longer the most important thing in life,” said Bideyeva. “Abortions enable women to avoid unwanted pregnancies. To ban abortion today would be to start a new wave of crime. Women would turn to backstreet gynaecologists, and we would go back to the days of women dying from abortion. There would be a rise in the number of abandoned children.

“But the law banning late term abortions is also right: it’s time we learned to be responsible. Is it really so hard to learn to protect ourselves? I realise that it is difficult to talk about sex, sex-related problems and contraception in Ossetia. But our health and descendants are more important than prejudices.”

Yana Voitova is a freelance journalist based in Vladikavkaz.

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