On Russia's Adoption Ban

Paul Kengor

1/31/2013 10:38:00 AM - Paul Kengor

Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared at National Catholic Register.

Vladimir Putin has sparked international outcry by banning adoptions of Russian children by American families. His action immediately halted the departure of hundreds of Russian orphans about to board planes to journey to a new life. It was a cruel move, widely condemned as “callous” and “vindictive.”

No country adopts as many Russian children as America. According to the State Department, there have been 60,000 adoptions by American couples since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That has now suddenly ended.

Why would Putin do this? The main reason seems to be retaliation for a recent U.S. law aimed at curtailing human-rights abuses by Russia’s corrupt government. The Magnitsky Act bans Russian officials who have committed abuses from entry into the United States. The ban on U.S. adoptions by Putin and his cronies appears to be retaliation.

Yet, there is a possible added motivation to Putin’s action. Consider:

The reality is that Russia continues to bleed population. For about a decade and a half now, projections have been that Russia’s population will plummet from 140-150 million to 104 million by 2050. What are the chief causal factors in this? There are several, but among the biggest is abortion, which occurs in Russia at an astonishingly high level. Putin has tried to slow the hemorrhage, but has failed to do so.

A little background: Abortion was legalized in Russia by the Bolsheviks shortly after they seized power in October 1917. Vladimir Lenin made good on his promise for an “unconditional annulment of all laws against abortion.” In short order, the number of abortions skyrocketed. By 1934, Moscow women were having three abortions for every live birth. The toll was so staggering that an appalled Joseph Stalin, the mass murderer, actually banned abortion in 1936, fearing a vanishing populace.

In 1955, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, reconstituted legalized abortion. By 1958, there were 5 million abortions per year in the Soviet Union. (This contradicted Margaret Sanger’s optimistic prediction that “neither abortions nor contraception will be necessary or desired” once a “functioning communistic society” was in full bloom in the Soviet Union.) By 1965, abortions peaked at 8.2 million, dwarfing the worst years in America post-Roe v. Wade. By 1970, some 3,000 full-time abortion doctors were performing roughly 7.2 million abortions per year. By the 1980s, Soviet citizens comprised 5-6 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s abortions.

The Cold War and communism ended in Russia in the 1990s, but the runaway abortion rates did not. Those rates continued into the Putin era, with the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000. An illuminating article in the Washington Post in February 2003 reported that 13 percent of Russian couples are infertile, with more on the rise. “In nearly three out of four cases,” said the article, “infertility is attributed to the woman, typically because of complications from one or more abortions.” The Russian Health Ministry reported 1.7 abortions for every live birth—which is actually an improvement from previous decades, but only because contraception is being more widely used. Either way, it adds up to a decline in population.

In response, Vladimir Putin has taken major measures to try to stem this tide. In 2003, he implemented the first restrictions on abortion in Russia in almost 50 years, limiting abortions to within 12 weeks of gestation. Exemptions were allowed only for rape or the imprisonment, death, or severe disability of the husband.

Remarkably, Putin’s Russia has even gone so far as to initiate a National Fertility Day, aimed at getting the culture to produce more Russians.

And so, how might the adoption ban fit into this? Well, adopted Russians by foreigners—especially Americans, who adopt more Russians than any other country—means more Russians leaving Russia. By banning adoptions, Putin’s country can retain more Russians. There may be a measure of pure Russian demographics and nationalism behind this decision.

In fact, the adoption ban was championed in the Russian legislature by the nationalistic United Russia party, even before it got to Putin. And it’s quite telling that Putin has responded to his ban on American adoptions with measures intended to boost adoptions internally by native Russians. He promises a presidential decree to “modify the support mechanisms for orphaned children.”

Thus, overall, Putin’s adoption ban has two “benefits,” in his mind: 1) it retaliates against the U.S. Magnitsky Act; and 2) it retains more Russians in Russia.

That’s classic Putin—and a tragedy for many Americans and many Russian children who will likely remain orphans.