There is something fascinating about the history of reproductive rights, contraception, and abortion in every country and ideology that we’ve looked at in our women’s reproductive rights series. This week we’re turning to the impact of Communism on these issues, particularly in China and the Soviet Union. Here we have the complete range of reproductive control extremes – from hyper pro-natalist policies and criminalization of birth control and abortion in both China and the USSR; to the Soviet Union’s provision and regulation of abortion while simultaneously paying for extensive maternal support programming; to China’s one child policy, which included forced abortion and sterilization in an attempt to get control over an overpopulation problem. Averill and Marissa discuss all of these nuances and more in this episode on the impact of Communism on uteruses.
Written by Averill Earls, PhD, and Marissa C. Rhodes
Recorded and produced by Averill Earls and Marissa Rhodes
Today we’re talking about reproductive rights and Communism, with a focus on the Soviet bloc and China. There is some basis for how Communists understood women, reproduction, and family limitation in Engels’ writing, particularly in his Origins of the Family. This is mostly based on the idea that women should be emancipated from the exploitation of marriage, and, per Marxist thought, that would happen naturally after the proletarian revolution. But Engels also conceded that women’s role in life was raising a family, and that she could only do so effectively if she was educated and politically active, so she could raise valuable little comrades. Not particularly different in some ways from the American idea of Republican Motherhood, or even the Nazi perception of women’s roles in society that we discussed several weeks ago.
But in these cases we’re discussing today, it’s also weird, because in some ways, communism is a very feminist theory; but in practice, it was much more complicated AND, even though Engels lamented the patriarchy, he never actually explained what reproductive rights women SHOULD have, or what that would look like. So communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin and Mao adopted reproductive policies of their own and mobilized communist rhetoric to achieve their eugenic goals.
In 1921, after the Bolsheviks defeated the White Army in the Russian Civil War, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the the Soviet Union, legalized abortion. In theory it could be free for anyone, but in reality there was a fee imposed for most abortions. From the beginning, it was a temporary measure, understood as an effort to address the economic situation created by a decade of war, revolution, and civil war. And because it was understood to be temporary from the start, it had an expiration date, determined by Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, in 1936. In that year the state declared a sufficient change in the economy to allow Soviet women to live in a world free of the need for abortion. This was helpfully called “The Decree in Defense of Mother and Child” – and through that statute, the Community Party banned abortion in all cases, except when a mother’s life was in danger.
This was quite problematic in the urban centers of the USSR, where women relied heavily on state abortion providers; with the collapse of that system, they were forced to rely on dangerous back-alley abortion. From the start, legalization had little to do with women’s right to choose; in many ways legailization had been an effort to circumvent women’s use of the babki (lay midwives) and znakharki (sorceresses), the traditional abortion providers in much of the Soviet Union. The state was particularly concerned that these providers conducted abortions in unsanitary, life-threatening conditions; so justification for legalization was to provide clean, sanitary abortions.
Between 1920-1936, the abortion fees were on a sliding scale; the poorest workers and peasants, unemployed wives of Red Army soldiers, and disabled on the job qualified for free abortion. Because goal was not to encourage the limitation of births (large pop growth important for rapid industrialization) limitations introduced in 1924. For Slavic women seeking abortions outside the urban centers with state-run providers, there were still numerous back-alley abortions; plus doctors turned away women past 1st trimester, who had one of several potentially dangerous medical conditions, or were pregnant with their 1st child. Women suffering injuries from those babkis and znakharkis filled the gynecology wards of rural clinics. Ultimately, the continued use of those alternative abortion services became a reason the state used to recriminalize in 1936.
Legalized abortion was not embraced in all parts of the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, for example, abortion services only used by Slavic women; though there seems to have been some accepted use of herbal abortifacients, the state-provided abortion services were considered taboo by Kazakh women (a Turkic Muslim people, traditionally nomads who were forced into the Soviet Union in 1920 by the Bolsheviks). At the Kzyl-Orda Municipal Hospital in Kazakhstan, only .002 percent of abortions in 1928 performed on Kazakh women (of 1,997 cases). Still, the number of abortions in the country rose generally in Kazakhstan as elsewhere in the Soviet Union (582 in 1925, 6127 in 1928), but other ethnic groups (particularly Slavic women) accounted for those numbers.
When the Soviet Union recriminalized abortion in 1936, doctors were required to submit the written authorization, decisions recorded, monthly evals forwarded to the public health department with a copy to the regional public health department. Women who checked into hospitals and clinics with symptoms of back-alley abortions were referred to prosecutors for investigation. Doctors who performed non-medically necessary abortions subject to prison up to 3 years.
So what we see here is a shift, from legalized abortion to hardcore pronatalism. In Kazakhstan, abortion recriminalization led to huge jumps in birth rates (est. 25-30% per year from 1936-39), which required a huge increase in spending on maternity. In 1935, spending on maternity support and medical care increased to 9.7 mil rubles; that doubled in 1936, at 17.8 mil rubles, and that doubled AGAIN in 1937, at 38 mil rubles! Each mother received 2,000 rubles per year per child up to age 5. One year after the pronatalist program was announced, 7,018 mothers in rural Kazakhstan applied for financial assistance. What’s wild is, of course, that this doesn’t represent all eligible mothers, as that information trickled slowly to the more rural parts of the USSR to the impoverished but also illiterate women.
This pronatalist program was accompanied by an extensive propaganda program – largely emphasizing anti-abortion ideology, and the importance of Soviet motherhood. These efforts were amplified in the state-controlled newspapers. One happy motherhood story in appeared in the papers papers in the late-1930s of Evdokiia Petrovna Balabanova, a Russian woman living in Kazakhstan. She received 4000 rubles to help raise her 8 children, and was quoted as saying, “Now my biggest job is to raise healthy children. The possibility for it exists. I will be receiving 4000 rubles and I will spend it exclusively on my children. Thanks to Comrade Stalin for the concern, with which he surrounds us–happy mothers that we are.” (Michaels, 324) Balabanova was an anomaly; Kazakh women had on average more children than Slavic women, so they were often used as the shining happy example of ideal Soviet motherhood.
Because women will always seeks abortions, whether it is legal or not, illegal abortions continued after recriminalization. This is a persistent theme in just about every time and place where ways of terminating pregnancies were known. Some women were desperate, feared the social stigma of having a child out of wedlock (which continued even after the social safety nets created to encourage natalism, even among the unmarried women of the USSR). Stalin’s efforts to make nuclear families the basis of the Soviet nation is hardly unique, and particularly in lock step with much of Europe and the Western World in the 1940s and 50s. But when Stalin died in 1955, the Soviet Union once again decriminalized (relegalized?) abortion.
The 1955 law resuscitated that 1921 statute, making abortions free of charge up to 12 weeks gestation. Abortion was a convenient way of family limitation because other birth control methods were not reliable or were difficult to obtain, or women simply did not know about it. For example, in Ukraine, there were few family planning centers, and Ukrainian women could only obtain birth control info from gynecologists. Gynos rarely prescribed female contraceptives; IUDs were perceived as harmful to women’s health, and oral contraceptives imported from Hungary and Czechoslovakia were high dose and had intense side effects (Hilevych, 94), It was not until the late 1960s that some gynos started providing infomation on different contraceptive measures, and even then generally limited to women aged 30-55, or who already had 2 children. On top of that, the Soviet made very poor quality condoms! So couples could not rely on rubber to prevent conception.
Also, in different parts of the Soviet bloc (including the Eastern European countries that were associated and socialism enforced by Soviet muscle, like Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany), there were many different attitudes toward birth control and abortion. In Poland abortion was legal for women experiencing “difficult living conditions” from 1956 until 1990; after Communism fell, abortion access was immediately restricted, in part because of the prevalence of the Catholic nationalism that Poland’s independence movement espoused. In 1993, the Polish government removed the “difficult living conditions” grounds entirely, so that abortion was only available for women whose health threatened by pregnancy, cases of rape confirmed by a prosecutor, or if the fetus is seriously or irreversibly damaged. There are few official figures on abortion in Poland, although it was common knowledge that women in Poland had abortions and they were readily available; as one survey of Poles in the 1980s showed, 72% of Poles believed that women would seek abortions regardless of its legality, and so better to have them safe and legal.
Conversely, surveys in Russia in the 1960s and 70s indicated that abortions outnumbered live births. The Soviet Union discouraged abortions, but after 1955 never again tried to criminalize it.
We’re going to shift gears now to look at Communist China’s policies. The 1935 Criminal Code made abortion illegal (unless the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life) and the Chinese Communist party generally agreed that abortion should be illegal and made it so in all territories under Communist revolutionary control between 1931 and 1948.
Communist China founded in 1949. At first, the communist Chinese government had a pro-natalist policy. They wanted all the babies all the time. They instituted child subsidies, and they limited access to contraception, abortion and sterilization.
Mae Zedong’s words on the subject:
“Each time the Chinese overthrew a feudal dynasty it was because of the oppression and exploitation of the people by the feudal dynasty, and not because of any overpopulation…. It is a very good thing that China has a big population. Even if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production.The absurd arguemtn of Western bourgeois economists like Malthus that increases in food cannot keep pace with increases in population was not only thoroughly refuted in theory by Marxists long ago but has also been completely exploded by the realities in the Soviet Union and the Liberated Areas of China after their liberation. Revolution plus production can solve the problem of feeding the population.”
Mao’s denunciation of Malthusianism (as a European, capitalist-infected ideology) continued to delay China’s efforts at family planning until his death. The party’s far left members continued to be suspicious of family planning because of its connection to Malthusianism into the 1970s. Both Sun Yatsen and Chiang Kai-Shek before him had argued that a large population was necessary for China to maintain national autonomy (presumably from Japan). China has a long tradition of pro-natalist policy. Most Chinese emperors or most dynasties insisted on constant demographic growth. So they saw a large population as an asset. Mao Zedong was super traditional in this sense.
Social scientists approached Chinese leaders several times before and after the Civil War with concerned about overpopulation. Most sociologists traced China’s problems to its overpopulation– food shortage, poverty, low health and education standards. But they weren’t taken seriously until the second half of the 20th century. The CPC’s newspaper, the People’s Daily wrote: “while imperialist and capitalist states furthered birth control, socialist and democratic states promoted childbearing.” Thus in the year early years of the communist republic, early marriage and extensive procreation was what a good comrade did. Abortion and contraception were taboo and extremely limited.
One example: in 1950, military and government families living in Beijing were required to obtain written consent from their husbands, the husband’s superiors, her doctors and her husband’s parents in order to perform an abortion legally. Members of the CPC had to obtain written consent from the Minister of Health!
What did women think about these limitations on contraception? Deng Yingchao (wife to Zhou Enlai) presided over the 2nd National Congress of the Women’s Federation in 1954. She wrote to the State Council afterward, urging the party to consider improving access to birth control devices. She argued that contraceptives were in high demand among women cadres and that the regime was not meeting their reproductive needs. Due to the communist revolution, Chinese women were struggling to reconcile family demands with those of the economy and those of the party. Anticipating resistance, Deng attached an invoice for contraceptive devices that had been purchased by the USSR. She thought that knowing that if the party knew their idols had no objection to birth control, that they may be more willing to hear her concerns. But the USSR was pro-natalist in general so for most Chinese political officials, this made birth-control a non-issue despite popular demand.
For the next decade, China was plagued by social problems that did indeed seem to vindicate the social scientists who warned of the dangers of overpopulation in recent decades. A lagging food supply, struggling universal education apparatus and scarce land resources caused the state to relax some of its most stringent policies. In 1953, contraceptives and abortions were made available and legal under certain conditions. Rural areas were specifically forbidden from selling contraceptives but urban areas sold contraceptives relatively freely. Sterilization was permitted only in very rare circumstances, one of them being if a family already had 6 children and the mother acquired written permission from her husband, husband’s superior and her physician.
In 1956-7, the state launched its first birth control campaign and access to contraceptives and abortion became somewhat easier. Contraceptive surgery would be allowed if a comrade’s fertility interfered with his or her work demands. Abortions that were not medically necessary were allowed but only if the couple had 4 children or more. By the end of 1957, abortion restrictions were relaxed even further, allowing for legal abortions when women had proof of health problems or an unspecified excessive number of children. The vagueness of this policy opened up access to legal abortion. But demand quickly outpaced supply and for the most part, only coastal, urban elites experienced unhindered access to the contraceptives of their choice.
This was all without the CPC changing its official party line. In 1957 Mao Zedong started considering family planning initiatives but his most direct suggestions were censored from public knowledge until decades later mostly because he was unsure. Some experts waved overpopulation concerns aside, saying China could afford to grow by several hundred million citizens before overpopulation really became a nuisance.
So from 1958 to 1960, during the Great Leap Forward, Mao put aside his concerns about overpopulation rolled back family planning efforts, pulling all family planning propaganda. Instead, the party decided to promote the idea that China was under-populated and that more people meant more producers.
In 1962, the government was shocked to see a huge spike in fertility among its citizens. This sent them into another panic about population control at time when the country was already experiencing fallout from the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward agricultural policies. Approximately 30 million Chinese died from starvation. Mao Zedong’s rival Zhou Enlai began to promote family-planning initiatives. He said, “a large population is a good thing, but as we are the most populous country in the world, we already have plenty of this good thing, and if we still let the population grow rapidly in an unplanned manner, it won’t be a good thing any more.” For a short time, the party instituted more family planning initiatives, especially in urban centers. But efforts were always reluctant, halting and divisive for party officials. Women in Shanghai achieved the greatest level of reproductive rights and the rest of the country trailed behind. In Shanghai, abortion was legalized in all situations, more health offices were opened and the state began funding contraceptive counseling. But these changes were not widespread or permanent.
From 1966 to 1970 the Cultural Revolution put a stop to all Family planning initiatives. Much like a decade earlier with the Great Leap Forward, the party’s latest plan required all hands on deck. So once again, the party officially promoted population growth and pulled Family planning propaganda.
The initial push of the Cultural Revolution subsided by 1970 and Zhou Enlai once again pushed the Politburo to reconsider family planning initiatives. In the past, contraception and abortion had always been relegated to the realm of “health work.” Health work was just not the party’s priority. Zhou Enlai instead framed family planning as something that should be included in agricultural and economic policy. This got Mao’s attention and the attention of the rest of the Politburo. The tide began to turn, once again. The party, however, continued to deny publicly that overpopulation was a problem until after Mao’s death in 1976. They just couldn’t reconcile their old communist ideas about the power of the people with family limitation initiatives. Though they knew by this point that curbing population growth WOULD be necessary.
Nonetheless, in 1973, China launched its first anti-natalist policy. They were feeling pressure from the news media. As a way to finally address this overpopulation problem, the state improved reproductive education for women and couples and improved access to contraception and abortion services. They used propaganda to promote two-child families, long birth intervals and delayed marriage. This campaign was the most successful so far, halving the fertility rate between 1971 and 1978.
In 1975, the state ramped up the initiative yet again by implementing population targets and collective birth plans to be managed at the local level. So local officials were held personally accountable for achieving population targets. Chinese politicians put the food supply at the top of their list of reasons why birth rates needs to be drastically reduced. Only 14% of Chinese land is cultivated so they must feed many citizens with a very small area of agricultural land. Party leaders also had anxiety about finding employment for such a massive number of people, funding their education and preserving the environment. So efforts to control families’ fertility continued.
It took several years for the CPC to obtain reliable calculations of their population growth. It was not until 1978 that the State Statistical Bureau realized that the Cultural Revolution had inspired a massive population increase. The truth was undeniable, this was a problem that the party HAD to face and quickly. From this point forward, the Communist party regarded overpopulation as a hindrance to modernization and the kind of economic development they aspired to. It took them so long to address the problem that Chinese politicians often refer to their former waffling as “a hard to correct historical mistake.”
In response to spiraling overpopulation problems and its perceived contribution to the economic crisis in the late 70s, the one-child policy was implemented nationally in 1979. Prior to its national implementation, it was being used experimentally in various provinces. So it was not an entirely new idea.
In addition to the local planning and province-level targets, China also set a national population target. They wanted a population of less than 1.2 billion and a population growth of zero by the year 2000. This would mean that the birth rates matched the death rates. The state started the Family Planning Commission in 1979 to enforce the one child policy and to shoulder some of the burden of hitting national population growth targets. This was the first time that family planning was organized on the national level rather than at the local level.
Even though there were national targets and the FP Commission coordinated on a national level, local communes were still responsible for enforcing local growth targets. Steven Mosher did a study of a village at the Guangdong Pearl River Delta from 1979-1980 to shine some light on the methods local communes were using to hit growth targets and, no surprise, they were coercive and awful. These particular officials mandated mass meeting attendance and participation for all pregnant women, high fines for non-attendance, dismissal from their jobs as a result of their pregnancies, and forced sterilization and abortion, even in the third trimester of “illegal” pregnancies.
But not all counties enforced the one child policy in the same way. American anthropologists studying another Guangdong county and in 1980 found that they imposed very few penalties for families with several children and even withheld fines for families who had only female children (how nice of them!). By 1981, the same anthropologists were observing forced sterilizations and forced abortions in the same county. So the level of enforcement varied over time and space.
But Chinese officials were generally supportive of the one-child policy. Deng Xiaoping said: “In birth planning, we must definitely keep propagating that every couple has only one child. We cannot make concessions here. There is no hope for the Four Modernizations, should this lever be broken. It is of major importance for the national economy.”
And in 1981, China created the State Family Planning Commission (pretty much the Population Ministry) to coordinate all national population control efforts. In 1982, China added family planning and population control to its constitution as a permanent national policy. They mean business.
A propaganda campaign followed. The party decided to name January 1983 a “propaganda month: aimed at promoting the one-child policy and encouraging mass sterilization. One memo reads:
“We suggest that you combine the propaganda month with the implementation of contraceptive measures for married couples. In particular, one spouse of rural couples of reproductive age with already two children should be mobilized for sterilization. The only exception are person successfully using IUDs for more than five years, those who will be beyond reproductive age shortly, who are sterile, or belong to national minorities. We have to struggle for a complete sterilization of all target persons during this winter or in the next year. At the same time, we have to go all out to struggle for early abortions among women with pregnancies outside plan.”
Propaganda month mobilized 1.37 professional propagandists and 138,000 physicians & other medical personnel in order to meet these goals. Unsurprisingly, this very intense policy was deeply unpopular. Chinese men and women were feeling like their bodies were not their own, their desires and hopes for their families were being destroyed by a government that just needed there to be fewer people. It must have been profoundly alienating.
One thing that is straight up disturbing to me is the eugenic nature of it all. In one of the sources I was reading, the author interviews a Chinese doctor named Ying Zhonghua and this is in 2005. When he asks her whether non-voluntary abortions and sterilizations are ethical she first denied that they were ever forced but then she added:
“The mentally retarded and people with genetic diseases shouldn’t bear children– the state doesn’t allow it, either. For them to have children is harmful to society, the country, the family, and the individual.” She had no qualms about this. She was not ashamed that this was her opinion. It seemed obvious to her. Is this a testament to the effectiveness of propaganda? Or do the Chinese really think differently about reproductive rights?
The years 1984-1985 saw a relaxation in the enforcement of the one child policy and the party’s official opinion on the subject has continued to vary since then but the One Child Policy is still an official policy today. Recent iterations of the policy required that both parents be only children, and only then would they be permitted to have two children instead of one. In 2013 Chinese couples were told they could have two children if only ONE parent was an only child. Communist party members and medical professionals seem to all agree that the nation’s birth control policies are a good thing. Government officials and Chinese medical professionals deny that women are ever forced to have an abortion. They argue, like Dr. Ying, that almost always, the woman is willing to undergo an abortion and/or sterilization.
I think it’s also hard for Americans to understand the Chinese approach to reproductive health. We may see it as a deeply personal issue while they tend to understand it as a social issue; the desires of one should be outweighed by what is good for the rest. An article I read put it very poignantly: Births and pregnancy can be “illegal” while abortion is always “legal” while “in Western countries, terminating a pregnancy is legally controlled to a greater extent than being pregnant.”
It’s also worth pointing out that oftentimes the turns in China’s family planning policy is credited to Western influence. First they have been accused of westernizing too much once they started encouraging family limitation. Lately, they have been accused of letting American evangelical pro-lifers influence their abortion policies. When in reality, China encompasses both extremes on its own terms. There are pro- and anti-natalist elements of Chinese spirituality and society.
China’s relationship to reproductive policy seems to have had very little to do with their Marxist political ideology. Because even though they identify as communists this whole time, they have covered the whole spectrum of reproductive rights from women in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant all the way to no more kids, let’s sterilize everyone and abort all the babies.
Practical concerns were the most motivating factors for them rather than ideology. Though they sometimes couched family planning policies in terms of communist thought, the motivation for implementing family planning policies was usually independent of communist theory. But the reason they got into this mess in the first place was a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that contraception could fit into their world view in the same way that it fit into the worldview of Anglo capitalists.
When we’re discussing reproductive justice, that doesn’t just mean access to abortions, free and accessible contraceptives, contraception counseling, etc. It also means the freedom to have kids if AND when you want to. I think all too often, feminists seeking reproductive justice are labeled as anti-natalist or pro-abortion, when really what they’re advocating for is bodily autonomy and reproductive choice.
Show Notes & Further Reading
Note: Post contains affiliate links.
Tomas Frejka, “Induced Abortion and Fertility,” Family Planning Perspectives v17 n5 (Guttmacher Institute, 1985) 230-234
Paula Michaels, “Motherhood, Patriotism, and Ethnicity: Soviet Kazakhstan and the 1936 Abortion Ban,” Feminist Studies 27, n2 (Summer 2001)
Yuliya Hilevych, “Abortion and Gender Relationships in Ukraine, 1955-70,” The History of the Family 20.1 (2015) 86-105
David M. Heer, “Abortion, Contraception, and Population Policy in the Soviet Union,” Demography, 2 (1965) 531-39
Jill M. Bystydzienski, “Women and Socialism: A Comparative Study of Women in Poland and the USSR,” Signs 14.3 (Spring 1989)
Scharping, Thomas. Birth Control in China 1949-2000: Population Policy and Demographic Development. Routledge, 2013.
Hemminki E, Z Wu, G Cao, and K Viisainen. 2005. “Illegal Births and Legal Abortions–the Case of China”. Reproductive Health. 2.
Nie, Jing-Bao, and Arthur Kleinman. Behind the Silence: Chinese Voices on Abortion. Lanham, Maryland [etc.]: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.