Bolshevik Revolution First Legalized Abortion on Demand
“Down with Kitchen Slavery! Forward to a New Life.” Soviet poster by artist Grigory Shegal. Background shows factory cafeteria, nursery, workers’ club.
In today’s struggles over abortion rights, an important fact is little known: abortion on demand was first legalized in Bolshevik Russia. The connection between women’s rights and the struggle for a classless society free of exploitation and oppression was basic to the revolutionary program going back to the founders of the socialist movement.1 But it was the 1917 October Revolution in Russia that made it possible to start putting that program into effect. It was in this context that free abortion on demand was established in 1920.
The October Revolution was groundbreaking in many ways. One of the most notable was the swiftness with which the new, Soviet government established by the Bolsheviks abolished the old tsarist laws discriminating against women, and enacted measures to help lay the foundation for the full emancipation of women. While such a deep-going transformation does not happen overnight (let alone in an economically backward and war-torn country like Russia in 1917), a workers state with revolutionary leadership could and did accomplish those pioneering measures immediately. Still, as V.I. Lenin, Alexandra Kollontai and other Bolshevik leaders emphasized, the fight for full emancipation went beyond the level of laws and decrees. It meant getting to the material roots of oppression. The Bolsheviks were determined not just to make a start but to advance the struggle systematically, not just within Russia but by fighting to spread the revolution internationally.
When the Soviet government established the right to abortion on demand in 1920, this occurred 53 years before the United States established the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (which has now been overturned). And unlike the capitalist USA even when Roe was still in effect, what Bolshevik Russia established was free abortion on demand – free meaning cost-free as well as by free decision of the woman, at any stage of pregnancy. Furthermore, support for working mothers was introduced. This included 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. These and other measures went far beyond what was available to the women of capitalist countries.
The young Soviet republic becoming the first country in the world to grant women access to a legal and cost-free opportunity to terminate pregnancy was part of efforts to overcome the backward, tsarist past. The old tsarist law code, which included punitive anti-abortion laws, was abolished in October (November by the Western calendar) of 1917. What would come after that was discussed and debated. In 1919, the Commissariat of Justice asked the Commissariat of Health to get input from the medical field regarding formal legalization of abortion.2 The old laws, of course, had not prevented women from terminating pregnancies, and the dangers of underground abortions and those based on home remedies were often the focus of discussion (sometimes fueling negative attitudes toward abortion per se). As public debate spread, the Commissariat of Health started receiving a flood of letters. One worker from a factory with many women workers wrote to Health commissar Nikolai Semashko in early 1920: “Within the past six months, among 100 to 150 young people under age 25, I have seen 15 to 20 percent of them making abortions without a doctor’s help. They simply use household products: They drink bleach and other poisonous mixtures.”3
The revolutionary government’s health officials considered it crucial that the procedure be carried out legally by doctors in hospitals – and obviously many women wanted better and safer alternatives to old and unsafe practices. A significant number of women, both rural and urban, also were aware that there were various forms of contraception, and eager for more information. On 18 November 1920, the Health and Justice commissariats issued the edict that not only formally legalized abortion but stipulated that it would be performed for free, by doctors, in hospitals.
Many assumed it would be mainly young, single and unemployed women who would mainly use this service. However, those doing so came from almost all demographics, though most were urban residents. This was partly due to more modern attitudes being more widespread in the cities, and partly because health services were still less available in the countryside. And most of those getting abortion turned out to be women who already had children, who were often using abortion to limit family size. Contraceptive devices – which were rudimentary, and often outright illegal, in the wealthy capitalist countries – were legal but scarce in revolutionary Russia, where the still-low level of industrial development had been sharply exacerbated by World War One, then the Russian Civil War and intervention by imperialist powers, including the U.S., trying to wipe out the Revolution. (They were defeated by the workers and peasants Red Army, built by Leon Trotsky.)
Before the Revolution
What was life like for the women of Russia prior to 1917? Bleak, to say the least; in fact it was horrendously oppressive. Even women in society’s small upper crust could not take a job or hold a passport without their husband’s permission. For the majority of Russia’s women, conditions were not so different from medieval times. Women in the countryside were often sold to whichever potential husband was the highest bidder. The father would then give the new husband a whip to symbolize his authority over his wife. Men were able to beat their wives openly and without consequence.
Treated as property, essentially not considered human, women of the lower classes had their lives ruined in countless ways. Things only became more difficult when childbearing was involved. Multiple pregnancies, miscarriages and high infant mortality rates were devastating and kept huge numbers of women confined to the home. The cause of not only freeing women from tsarist Russia’s barbaric conditions but winning their full legal, political and social equality was passionately embraced by generations of young Russian women and men radicals and rebels. Many became part of the revolutionary Marxist movement, including Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Larissa Reissner and others who are among figures of the past whose ideas and actions help inspire our struggles today.4
The year 1917 marked a turning point in Russian and world history. Industrial centers had grown rapidly as the tsarist regime built up its war industries in particular, and significant numbers of young women were among those drawn into the urban working class. Russia’s participation in the horrific bloodshed of the imperialist First World War led to a massive upheaval in February (March by the Western calendar) of 1917. The tsar was overthrown in the “February Revolution” – which was sparked by International Women’s Day, which in 1917 involved a massive strike and demonstrations of 150,000 people. Women workers started the Russian Revolution.5
But the Provisional Government arising from the February Revolution was a bourgeois government: a coalition between opportunist “socialist” parties and capitalist politicians. None of the basic problems were resolved at all: not the question of the imperialist war, the peasants’ poverty and subjugation to landlords, the exploitation of the workers, and the danger of counterrevolution led by rightist military officers. While women were granted the right to vote, this only scratched the surface of their oppression and certainly did not equate to liberation.
The October Revolution
Truly radical and revolutionary changes came about with the 1917 October Revolution. Within six weeks of the Bolsheviks leading the working class to power, civil marriage was legalized and either partner could initiate divorce without having to provide any grounds for doing so. This was just the beginning of a new body of laws aimed at dismantling women’s oppression and paving the way to liberation. All laws against homosexuality were also abolished. Then in October of 1918, the Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship was ratified. Together with further measures uprooting centuries of women relegation to legal inferiority, it abolished all distinctions between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children.
The Bolsheviks understood that even the most sweeping changes in laws could not achieve full liberation. However, the measures they undertook right from the beginning pointed the way toward transforming the material conditions and institutions of class society in which women’s oppression is rooted, especially the family. Karl Marx’s co-thinker Friedrich Engels had analyzed the emergence and evolution of the modern family in his groundbreaking work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Once human societies developed the capability to produce surplus wealth, those who came to possess that wealth (forming a ruling class) needed a way to securely pass it on to their children. The result was the monogamous family, with notions of “legitimacy” adopted to ensure the transfer of property through paternal lineage. By measures like the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship, the Bolsheviks began to undo the precedent for women’s oppression set by so many years of class society.
Revolutionary Marxists had long emphasized that for women to be free from oppression they need to be freed from domestic servitude. If woman remained shackled by household drudgery – cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, child-rearing and the rest – then she would continue to be confined to the home. All she would really know would be her private family unit, disconnected from the rest of working society. Together with coeducational schools, workers’ clubs and innumerable cultural institutions, the Bolsheviks worked to begin putting into practice the vast task of providing social institutions to replace the centuries-old imprisonment in the home. This meant establishing things like communal laundries and cafeterias, as well as creches and daycare centers, to free women from household burdens and help them enter fully into social labor, political and cultural life. Participating in the workforce was already helping growing numbers of women gain more economic independence.
However, Russia’s poverty, the devastation of war and civil war, and the lack of experienced revolutionary leaderships in countries where revolutionary workers were trying to spread the October victory meant that material scarcity and capitalist encirclement drastically limited resources for everything, including this ambitious program. Not only that: these conditions created the basis for the rise of a privileged layer, the parasitic bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin, which – under the banner of its new, anti-Marxist slogan of “socialism in one country” – broke with the revolutionary internationalist program of Bolshevism and pursued a conservative, nationalist course.
As part of this, while some important advances for women continued, others were halted or rolled back outright by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One of the most notorious retrograde measures was carried out in 1936, as part of Stalin’s push to build up the institution of the family.6 A new law “On the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood” imposed a near-total ban on abortion, together with making divorce more difficult. Cash bonuses were even provided for mothers with many children. (The Stalin regime also recriminalized homosexuality, setting the pattern for a disgraceful tradition of Stalinist homophobia, which Maoists became especially notorious for promoting.)
Despite Stalinism, the Soviet Union and its collectivized economy continued to produce gains for women. One example is the pioneering work of Soviet clinicians seeking ways to alleviate pain in childbirth. Techniques they worked out would later influence French doctor Fernand Lamaze, who visited the USSR in 1951 as part of a delegation of leftist physicians. Supported in part by the Communist-led French metal workers union, he became the creator of the popular “Lamaze Method” of natural childbirth.7 While religious authorities in many countries had taught that the pain of childbirth was woman’s punishment for Eve’s biblical disobedience, Soviet scientists developed ways to help women give birth as painlessly as possible. In 1953, Stalin died. Two years later, under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, the ban on abortion was repealed. It was only after the capitalist counterrevolution destroyed the USSR in the early ’90s that a reactionary abortion ban was once again put in place.
Under capitalism, women’s liberation is impossible. The capitalist system requires women’s continued oppression in order to maintain the economic and social relations that benefit a small minority of exploiters while the vast majority of humanity suffers. Counterposed to capitalism, socialism requires and is interwoven with the liberation of women on the path to fully actualizing a classless society, in which all the oppressed are freed from the chains of capitalism. So not only would a revolutionary workers state fulfill the call for free abortion on demand, it would be able to defend and guarantee that right. The right of a pregnant person to a safe abortion at their discretion is not a bargaining chip for capitalist politicians to concede and take away when convenient.
Just as a major goal of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 was to attack women’s oppression at its roots, that is key for us today. They understood that women’s liberation cannot be fulfilled without – and is key to bringing about – a genuinely socialist society in which all forms of social oppression are overcome. The workers of Russia had burning demands and necessities – many of them linked intimately to women’s freedom – that they knew could only be met and realized through socialist revolution. It was a revolutionary workers state that brought women closer to genuine liberation than they had ever been since the dawn of class society. Today, young revolutionaries are organizing and working for new red Octobers to fulfill the promise and program shown by trailblazing Bolsheviks a century ago. Join us! ■
Claude McKay on the Russian Revolution
and Women’s Rights
Claude McKay (1890-1948) was one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, widely known for his poem “If We Must Die” (1919) advocating black self-defense in the face of the wave of racist terror that erupted after World War One. Enthusiastically greeting the Bolshevik Revolution, the gay Jamaican-born writer worked with V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky and other revolutionary leaders, addressing the Communist International on the fight for black liberation in the U.S.. In an account of one of his visits to the young Soviet workers state, he wrote:
“When the Russian workers overturned their infamous government in 1917, one of the first acts of the new premier, Lenin, was a proclamation greeting all the oppressed peoples throughout the world, exhorting them to organize and unite against the common international oppressor – private capitalism.... I was shown the new status of the Russian women gained through the revolution of 1917. Capable women can fit themselves for any position; equal pay with men for equal work; full pay during the period of pregnancy and no work for the mother two months before and two months after the confinement. Getting a divorce is comparatively easy and not influenced by money power, detective chicanery, and wire pulling. A special department looks into the problems of joint personal property and the guardianship and support of the children. There is no penalty for legal abortion and no legal stigma of illegitimacy attaching to children born out of wedlock.”
– Claude McKay, “Soviet Russia and the Negro,” The Crisis, December 1923
- 1. See the Internationalist pamphlet Marxism and Women’s Liberation (2017).
- 2. Susan Gross Solomon, “The Soviet Legalization of Abortion in German Medical Discourse,” Social Studies of Science, August 1992.
- 3. Quoted in Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, the State, and Revolution (1993).
- 4. See, among other great resources, Bolsheviks and the Liberation of Women (Internationalist pamphlet, 2005), and our special issue on “Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution,” Revolution No. 16, May 2019.
- 5. See “International Women’s Day Sparked the 1917 Russian Revolution,” in The Internationalist No. 47, March- April 2017.
- 6. Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed (1936) provides a crucial analysis of this in the chapter “Thermidor in the Family.”
- 7. Paula Michaels, Lamaze: An International History (2014).