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Saturday, August 19, 2006

On Abortion in Russia

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, blogger Julia Gorin gives horrifying details about Russian attitudes towards abortion and the value of human life in general, insights which go far in explaining why the Russian population is dwindling down to zero.

The Web site of Ms. Magazine--yes, it still exists--is calling on readers to sign a petition: "I have had an abortion. I publicly join the millions of women in the United States who have had an abortion in demanding a repeal of laws that restrict women's reproductive freedom."

Well, so much for the right to privacy. If Ms. readers hadn't had so many abortions, there might be more Ms. readers. As for the rest of us, here's a petition we could all sign: "I wasn't aborted."

Having narrowly escaped being aborted, I'd be the first in line.

Like most Soviet-era fetuses conceived in Russia by couples who were already parents, I was scheduled for abortion as a matter of course. In a society where abortion was the only form of birth control, it wasn't uncommon to meet women who had double-digit abortion counts. Often a couple would schedule the appointment before they even stopped to remember that they wanted a second child.

My husband, also a second-born, and I were lucky to have been two such afterthoughts, each brought into the world thanks to one of two parents' change of heart. (Actually it was Anya Isaakovna, my mother's usual at the public clinic, who sensed a tinge of reservation and kicked her out.) Coincidentally, both my husband and I were to be the third abortions, each of us having had two siblings who weren't so lucky, which unfortunately was lucky for us.

Not quite so for my parents. Life's turns dealt them a hand they couldn't have foreseen 30 years ago while aborting, an act that people living in a nation of miserables can't exactly be judged for. Indeed, among Soviet émigrés from the 1970s and '80s, it's very rare to see families with more than two children, the self-imposed quota among Russians of that wave. But in hindsight, as my mother said a few months after my newlywed elder sister and her husband died in a five-vehicle collision in 2000, had she known she would outlive one of her only two children, she would have had more.

In America there is room to judge, despite what the "sanctity of choice" crowd wants us to believe. Yet rather than do that, my intention is to plant a seed of consideration that may otherwise never occur to America's reluctant with-child women and even girls. It's a consideration that, for all our endless debating, goes unspoken, but that could alleviate heartache in later life and enrich our lives in ways we can't predict.

My father was another abortion-to-be. In 1941, my then 17-year-old aunt Dina barely managed to convince my grandparents that the invading Germans meant to kill Jews and that the family needed to evacuate from Odessa. They got onto literally the last ship out of the city, an overcrowded barge that had no food or clean water. Dina's 2-year-old brother, Rudik, didn't survive the journey to Uzbekistan. Heartbroken and shunning the idea of any "replacements" for Rudik, Grandma didn't think twice before setting out for an abortion when she became pregnant at 42. But through very insistent implorations, her Uzbek landlady talked her out of it.

That fetus went on to become a world-class violinist, first for the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra and later the Baltimore Symphony. He blazed one of the earlier trails out from behind the Iron Curtain to America, inspiring and facilitating many relatives and friends to abandon Russia for the free world.

Soon after arriving in Israel, a family friend named Zoya discovered she was pregnant with a second child and went in for the abortion routine. She was dumbfounded to encounter the following whispered line of questioning from the admitting nurse: "Do you not have a roof over your head?" There was a roof. "Do you not have enough food on the table?" There was plenty of food. Then an altogether alien concept to Zoya: "So why kill it?"

"I was shocked," Zoya recalled. "No one had ever told me I was killing anything. I'd never thought of it as a person. As soon as someone told me I was killing something, I didn't even consider it. I left." Much like my grandmother, today Zoya is the mother of a master violinist.

Even in the case of teen mothers-to-be, for all the ruination and dead dreams we are told will be visited upon their lives if they keep the baby, if someone has ambition to begin with, nothing has to stand in her way. Consider the story of Beverly D'Onofrio, dramatized in the 2001 Penny Marshall movie, "Riding in Cars with Boys." Beverly, played by Drew Barrymore, gets knocked up at 15. She marries the father, an older boy, only to discover that he is a drug addict. Over the next few years, things at home fall apart and the two separate, with Beverly retaining custody.

While for a time her opportunities are more limited than they would otherwise be (a chance to get into an elite writing program at New York University is dashed when she has to bring the kid with her to the interview), ultimately her dreams stay intact and her personal story paves a way to literary and cinematic success--not an easy feat even for the privileged. Beverly D'Onofrio got to have her cake and eat it too, and while the men in her life since no doubt have come and gone, she will always have her son.

Rather than debate what it is we're killing, we should consider what we may be saving--for our sakes as much as for "its" own. When you choose to abort, you alter the course of history. While the child up for abortion may or may not be the next Einstein, saving his life could one day save yours.

Every day of my mother's parental life was lived with a dread fear that something might happen to either of her children, and the reality of this possibility loomed large in our lives. In 1982, my father's aunt lost her only daughter and son-in-law in a plane crash that killed 50 and orphaned my cousin, whom our family adopted. In 1990, my older cousin lost her teenage firstborn in a car accident. Looking at my own family, and at our circle of acquaintances, I estimate that at least one in three couples has outlived a child.

Common wisdom in Russia--subsequently confirmed by science--was that you always keep the first child, since not doing so could affect your ability to bear children in the future. The apparent lesson in my family has been also to keep as many of the others as possible, since that firstborn's fate isn't assured.

My mother today aches to have more "close people," as she calls immediate family, and mourns how few are those whose love is unconditional. Every time I get into a car or plane, I'm paranoid about my safety for her sake. Every time I think of taking a foreign writing assignment, I think of her and don't. Every time I imagine moving to another city, I think of my parents' desolation.

We don't have a crystal ball, but there's someone who does, and there is a reason for every stork He sends along. I am religiously illiterate, but I have come to understand on the most visceral level why pregnancies are called "blessings"--even if, as often as not, the blessing comes in disguise.

For all the reluctant mothers-to-be out there, you should know that when you're having even a momentary second thought, someone you can't see is whispering in your ear. Fortunately for my husband's and my families, on the third occasion our parents listened.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so grateful that the two Russian women who gave birth to my children did not abort them. The woman who birthed my son was 43 at the time. The woman who gave my daughter life hid her pregnancy from her family. My son is now 5 and my daughter 3. They are both taking violin lessons! What a joy they are to me.