Can you get an abortion in Belgorod region due to religious restrictions?

Medicine in the Belgorod region: In 2011, Putin visited a local hospital and put the governor in a dentist’s chair. For more than five years, women in the Belgorod region have been required to talk to an Orthodox priest and a psychologist before having an abortion. Without their signatures, some doctors refuse to perform the procedure. The BBC’s Russian Service has learned how this system works and what it leads to.

The governor of the Belgorod region, Yevgeny Savchenko, has long wanted to make his region a spiritual center of Russia. An agronomist by training, he worked in collective farms, the Communist Party, and the Ministry of Agriculture before being appointed governor in 1995. Savchenko, 68, has ruled the region for three decades, and last year was in office for the seventh time. During this time, Savchenko became religious and passed the country’s only law on spiritual security. According to it, clients of prostitutes in the Belgorod region will be fined, and the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day and Halloween in schools and universities is banned. Savchenko, the leader among regional leaders, limited the sale of alcohol, which later spread throughout Russia. Under the same law on spiritual security, concerts by rappers Noize MC and Face are banned here, along with musicians playing in the genre of “heavy metal”, which is considered “spiritually dangerous”. Performances by contemporary playwrights such as Ivan Vyrypaev and Yevgeny Grishkovets were canceled. Philosopher Alexander Dugin, a Savchenko sympathizer known for his right-wing views, calls the Belgorod region “the most Russian in Russia.” There are more than 150 churches in the region, most within walking distance. Every hospital has a temple, a church, or a chapel; priests attend school proms and September 1 celebrations. Savchenko, who advocates an enlightened monarchy, has long known Patriarch Kirill. He has stated that his goal for his final term as governor is to transform the region from a “material” to a “creative-spiritual matrix.

Putin and Savchenko drinking tea at a Belgorod family’s home in September 2007. One of Savchenko’s main goals is to reduce the number of abortions. The governor has repeatedly told district heads that demographic indicators are the main criterion for evaluating their work. He urged officials to “carry out educational work among women about abortion. “We must understand the situation of abortion and convince everyone who is considering it – they should give birth. It is a lesser sin to reject the child than to kill it. We have to choose the lesser of two evils. After all, our system works well – there are waiting lists in orphanages to adopt a child. So let them give birth,” Savchenko said at a government meeting. Ideally, according to the governor of Belgorod, women born in the 1970s should give birth to “at least one child,” those born in the 1980s – two children, and those born in the 1990s – “at least three.” “We have to work with each of them, work and work. We must work with families, understand their needs,” Savchenko stressed. According to the authorities’ plan, the number of abortions in the region should decrease by 20% by 2025 thanks to “preventive work”. What kind of work is it? “I have been doing this for five years. Doubting women and convinced materialists come to me. These are very difficult talks. They argue. They say, you don’t understand, until a few weeks it’s just an embryo and [abortion] can be done. But this is not your life. It is not an ant, it is not an animal, it is a human being. The person is just trying to silence his conscience with such discussions,” Archpriest Yevgeny Kolesnikov worries.

This is what a bypass list looks like, as shown by one of the residents of Stary Oskol. We explain quickly, simply, and clearly what happened, why it matters, and what will happen next. The number of offers should remain: Episodes The end of the story: Advertising Podcasts “I told everyone at the beginning that my signature could in no way be seen as an endorsement of abortion,” says Fr. Evgeny. “It is simply a sign that the woman came and we had a conversation. But there were cases where I couldn’t write anything at all. I felt I had no moral right to do so, because I understood that the woman interpreted it as my permission. And I tell her – the decision is up to you in the end. Of course, if I don’t sign, I feel that the insult remains deep in the woman’s soul. But even without the priest’s signature, you are legally obligated to do it. On a May evening in 2017, Maria Buzayeva came to see Father Evgeny in the snow-white Temple of the Nativity. She already had three sons – four-year-old Pasha, three-year-old Yegor, two-year-old Nikita, and recently she learned of her fourth pregnancy. It was unplanned: Buzayeva forgot to take her birth control pill on time. They didn’t plan to raise the fourth child, and her husband said, “Only abortion. She told all this to the priest, holding a bypass form in her hands. It already had the signature of a psychologist from the crisis center, the matter was in the hands of the priest. “He lectured me and said he wouldn’t sign anything. He says he’s still young and doesn’t want any more kids. And I told him – I already have three, where else! He didn’t sign. And how could I understand him? When I came home, my husband didn’t believe it, he started yelling, “What nonsense they’ve come up with, what permission,” he says. The next day Buzayeva went to the temple again. Without her husband – there was no one to leave the children with. “I went in, stood there and looked at him” – Maria didn’t immediately remember the priest’s name, confused him with the priest who baptized her middle son Egor on the same days. “Miss, we talked about this yesterday. I cannot sign anything like that,” – said Father Evgeny. Buzaeva went for a consultation. According to her, the doctor first refused to see her without a referral. Then it turned out that the pregnant woman had bad test results. “While I was paying for all the tests and treatment, the doctor said it was too late for the surgery, especially since the paperwork had not been signed,” Buzayeva recalls. Dr. Lyudmila Bredikhina, looking down at the floor of the women’s consultation room at the central district hospital in Stary Oskol, told a BBC correspondent that she “couldn’t forbid anyone anything,” that “women often don’t know what they want,” and that it was possible that “infections should have been treated before the operation.” The nurse added, “The region certainly needs to reduce the number of abortions, but it all depends on how it is done. Counseling against abortion in the Belgorod region has been going on for more than five years. However, residents of other regions of Russia have only recently learned about the commission of a doctor, a psychologist from the Women’s Crisis Center, and a priest that women must go through before having an abortion in Belgorod. A resident of Stary Oskol posted a photo of a blank form with a list of specialists and lines for their signatures on one of the websites. She shared her story with the BBC. “In 2011, I had already had an abortion. I wanted a second child, but the stitches from the first C-section had not yet healed, and it was not possible to give birth. At that time there was no talk of a commission, I was given a referral and that was it,” recalls Galina (name changed), a mother of two. “Now I went to the doctor in almost the same condition – my youngest daughter is only one year old, the condoms failed, but instead of a referral for an abortion, I got this note. And they even asked me why I didn’t want to give birth. I was outraged. Are you serious, I asked? And they said, “Yes, we won’t give you permission to go to the hospital without these signatures. Well, I didn’t go anywhere, of course. I don’t need pro-lifers [people who want to ban abortion] to interfere in my affairs, I’m a non-believer, I have nothing to do with that. Galina’s story made the news and a scandal erupted. “It is surprising how they reacted to this unique experience. Instead of the federal TV channels coming and filming a story about this unique practice, which brings results and saves lives, they put us in a defensive position,” says priest Nikolay Dubinin in a conversation with the BBC. The rector of the city church in Stary Oskol, a father of five children, has been working for five years in the hospital church, where he has been doing pro-life counseling. We met at the cultural center where his wife was awarded the Order of Maternal Glory of the First Degree on Family Day.

The salary of the residents of Stary Oskol is not high enough to buy children’s clothes on a regular basis. “For five years, they never came to us and said, ‘Tell us, this is such an amazing phenomenon! Instead, they are now telling us that we are interfering in other people’s lives, that we need to justify ourselves,” he says. “I understand the priests who do not sign these questionnaires. The priest just cannot bring himself to do it. Of course, these women can insist on an operation in the hospital.” “I admit that the gynecologist could have told Galina directly: go, go through the commission. I don’t exclude the human factor,” adds Father Nikolai. “But it should be understood that no one can give a basic permission or prohibition – it is her constitutional right. In general, this consultation was long and without signatures, for example, in our hospital we didn’t sign anything”.

Rice, buckwheat, a bottle of oil – this is how pro-lifers can help parents in need. In the center there are 800 client families. “Angel” believes that in 2017, 154 women came to them with the intention of having an abortion, and 32 of them decided to keep the pregnancy – these are the ones who returned to the crisis center with a child after giving birth. Agnostics, Muslims and people of other faiths have the right not to go to priests, says Father Nikolai. “But Muslims generally do not have abortions. But sometimes Muslim women come anyway. They are much more respectful than many Orthodox Christians. And a person who blesses Easter eggs will sit and argue that she has the right to kill. They argue and argue a lot. But are we going to come to the terrible judgment of God with the Constitution of the Russian Federation or with a declaration of rights and freedoms and say, “Look, Lord, here it says”? says Father Nikolai. There are many active pro-lifers in the Belgorod region. Drawing teacher Kristina Yudina has been involved in anti-abortion campaigns in Belgorod since 2013, and has opened a branch of the all-Russian pro-life movement ANO “For Life” in the region. “We walk the streets showing this,” she says, pulling a pink, velvety, soft mock embryo from her bag. Russian pro-lifers order special rubber dolls from like-minded people in the US.

The “For Life” activist uses visual aids to demonstrate how to convince women to refuse abortion. A set of three models, including delivery, costs about 14,000 rubles. The money is raised by supporters of the anti-abortion movement and sent free of charge to women’s health clinics, priests and private gynecologists in the regions, so that they can show them to women who want to have an abortion. Activists in Belgorod also draw embryos on kidney beans themselves – according to Yudina, this is what a fetus looks like in the sixth week of development. “Young people are afraid to pick it up. One woman was indignant that we approached passers-by, she said that she herself had abortions and it was normal, she argued that there was nothing inside at an early stage. And we tell her – close your eyes and put out your hand. And we put this embryo in her hand.

She felt sick,” Yudina recalls. Late last year, “For Life” activists across Russia collected 1,200,000 signatures for a ban on abortion in the country and delivered them in 98 boxes to the presidential administration.
During the annual press conference, Vladimir Putin responded by saying, “We cannot break anyone’s knees, but it is very important to support pregnant women.
According to Yudina, pro-lifers now go around shopping malls and ask visitors questions like: “Do you know that hormonal contraceptives and intrauterine spirals do not prevent conception, but prevent the implantation of the embryo in the uterus, thus interrupting a conceived life?”
Pro-lifers in the Belgorod region have close ties with all universities, institutes and colleges. According to Yudina, all rectors know them and often invite them to speak.
Posters distributed by pro-life activists in the Belgorod region. Accompanied by a psychologist, a priest, and a gynecologist, pro-life activists hold seminars at Belgorod universities almost every month.
According to one activist, attendance is voluntary, but the dean’s office informs students about the seminars, notices are posted in the buildings, the course curator tells about them, and there are never less than a hundred people attending.
The movie “The Mystery of a Woman’s Nature” shows that a man should be attracted with tolerance, while a woman can fulfill herself only as a mother and a housewife. They show an animated clip of Ukrainian singer Alesha about abortion with the words: “I couldn’t hide your traces and the light of life ignited in the depths.”
Recently, they refused to show “The Silent Scream” – a well-known American film that depicts the process of abortion through ultrasound and claims that the fetus screams in pain and discomfort during the procedure.
Many doctors criticize this popular propaganda material for misinformation, but in Belgorod it is no longer shown for other reasons: “Many were afraid, it is a very powerful movie, we decided to focus on positive emotions.”
According to the Women’s Consultations of the Belgorod region, activists have set up 46 “STOP ABORTION” stands, which are being sent throughout Russia free of charge by the St. Petersburg Foundation for the Protection of Children, Motherhood and Childhood.
Among other things, they contain a poem called “The Last Conversation with Mom” with the words: “Mama, dear, darling, I beg you, don’t kill me, it’s too early for me to go to heaven”.
Soon they will be available in all city clinics, because we have managed to establish cooperation with the Health Department, Yudina promises.
However, she notes that the relationship between pro-lifers and doctors in Belgorod is worse than in Stary Oskol, where everyone is very close to the church.
However, the Belgorod Regional Clinical Hospital has not performed abortions for two years. Although it is a public institution, the hospital is named after St. Ioasaph, and its management recently refused to obtain a license for abortion.
“We are an Orthodox institution, we do not provide such a service,” the receptionist told the BBC correspondent.
And the methods of anti-abortion counseling, anti-crisis centers and actions of pro-lifers – are borrowed from the American experience, according to obstetrician-gynecologist, general director of the Russian Association “Population and Development” Lyubov Erofeeva.
Pro-lifers from the USA are happy to share their experience with like-minded people around the world. “The Russian and American pro-life movements go hand in hand, their actions are coordinated, we simply translate their most successful slogans and take the best examples,” says Erofeyeva.
At the Angel Center, they count how many women they have been able to dissuade from having an abortion.
According to the Department of Health of the Belgorod region, as a result of “medical-psycho-social counseling” in 2017, 488 women decided to continue their pregnancy. The number of abortions for the year decreased by 8.5% – to 3,741.
“Before our talks in Stary Oskol, there were 500 abortions a year in one hospital. Now the number has dropped to 320. Specifically, our church has counted 80 children born. This is a good number. Many of them are later baptized in our church,” says Father Nikolay.
“Our governor has been fighting against abortion for a long time, trying to increase the birth rate,” explains Lyubov Kosyh, a highly qualified gynecologist with 35 years of experience, according to the BBC.
“But usually they’ve already made up their minds – it’s useless to try to persuade them. The most you can offer is to think about it while they have the tests done. In Belgorod, people usually refuse. The only thing that sometimes helps to convince them is an ultrasound, where they can see the fetus and its heartbeat. That’s when something “clicks” for them. Whatever method of abortion is used, the risk to a woman’s health increases the longer the pregnancy lasts.
“That is why our mandatory week of silence – those seven days after the first reception when women are simply sent to think – is not always beneficial. They come for an abortion in the ninth week, while this pause continues, while tests are done, and they end up having an abortion in the 11th week, which is much worse and more dangerous. It turns out that we were just buying time,” Kosyh explains.
The Health Ministry decree states that a woman has the right to refuse pre-abortion counseling – just as she has the right to refuse to listen to the fetal heartbeat before an abortion. Usually, however, both are offered as non-alternatives: listen and go through the commission, claims Erofeeva, a member of the presidium of the European Society of Contraception and Reproductive Health.
According to her, doctors deliberately do not say that it is a voluntary procedure: “The main reason and problem is that our Ministry of Health considers the prevention of abortion not as a contraception, but as a way to discourage women who are already pregnant from having an abortion. And since 2011, all the efforts of the officials have been focused precisely on this. It comes from the top, it is said at all meetings and it is hammered into people’s heads. But they will not reduce the number of abortions this way. A woman is not going to give birth to an unwanted child. And I think we can all imagine how unwanted children grow up.
The Department of Health and Social Protection of the Belgorod region did not respond to a request for comment on the work of anti-abortion commissions.
“I don’t know why no one has protested publicly in recent years,” wonders Galina from Stary Oskol. “I asked my friends, the mothers of my friends – many said they received such papers. Many people suffered a lot. I am sure that not all of those who finally gave birth are happy. Having a child is also a burden, no less than having an abortion, I know what I’m talking about, I have two. You can’t force someone to give birth.
One of Galina’s friends went to the priest with her boyfriend – they convinced him to sign. Another friend returned with her mother to the women’s clinic. She caused a scandal and the doctors recommended an abortion. The third friend paid for the tests herself to speed up the procedure, and she got the signature on a bypass list only after a lecture for abortion-seeking women in the chapel near the hospital, where the priest frightened them with the punishment of cancer as a consequence of the sin of murder.
“I was sent to get a priest’s signature before the abortion. Fortunately, they took so long that I changed my mind,” said the fourth person.
“The crisis center that brainwashes you for an hour only accepts appointments on Wednesdays. Try to get in while you are working. If you don’t work, they send you to the employment office for a certificate. They extend the deadlines for abortion by any means necessary,” says the fifth person.
“Either give birth to ten children or go around humiliated, explaining that there is no money for these children. The children won’t thank you for a poverty-stricken childhood. But all of them refuse to give their names to the press and have not filed complaints with the chief physicians, the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance of Consumer Rights and Human Well-being (Rospotrebnadzor), the insurance company, or the prosecutor’s office.
According to Yana Alekseeva, a lawyer and specialist in medical law, these are the authorities to which patients should have turned when they were denied medical services without a referral. According to the Administrative Code, this is punishable by a fine of up to 200,000 rubles or the revocation of the license for 90 days.
Father Evgeny from Stary Oskol says that three to four women come to him every week for pre-abortion counseling. According to his feelings, many of them change their minds and “at least everyone leaves with the thought that it is wrong. “
“But it is very difficult to communicate – you leave very depressed. One mother said, well, I will kick you out when you give birth. Well, she gave birth – nobody kicked her out. More than 50% have the same reason – the husband is against it. They threaten to leave, threaten divorce. If a woman says, “I don’t want children, I want to build a career” – well, excuse me, these are selfish reasons,” he analyzes the arguments of pregnant women who come to him.
Nor does the priest support the argument that poverty should not be allowed to spread: “There is no such poverty now. You can always do something, have a second job. We are not living in a time of food shortages. None of my large families complained that they had nothing. On the contrary, they fulfill the commandment of God: “Be fruitful and multiply,” and everything is given to them.
Maria Buzayeva, who did not receive an abortion order during the consultation, argued with her husband every night. He did not believe that the doctors refused to perform the operation. They were heading for divorce. But soon an ultrasound revealed that they were having a girl. The husband stayed. Last December, they had a daughter named Lera.
When asked how they protect themselves, Buzayeva replies, “We are not doing that at the moment. She got a job as a medical assistant in a city dental clinic. She is paid 8213 rubles a month. Together with benefits for large families, about 36 thousand rubles are provided. Buzayeva was not informed about the payment of 10 thousand rubles, which was supposed to be provided in the Belgorod region to those who changed their minds about having an abortion. She is looking for part-time work as a cleaner or caregiver. Her husband, who recently lost his job, looks after the children. They live with her mother-in-law in a two-room apartment.
“Don’t you regret it?” Oh, come on. We have been dreaming of a daughter for six years. She is my happiness.
Other materials by Olesya Gerasimenko can be read here.

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