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Culture : Abortion-Rights Foes Find Few Backers in Ukraine : Two out of every three pregnancies are terminated in the former Soviet republic, where poverty and tradition resist reform.

June 06, 1995|MARY MYCIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — Dr. Hryhory Fedotovich runs a showcase clinic. The women's counseling section at the exclusive institution in the Old Kiev district is clean, airy, new and packed with modern equipment.

"This is one of the best gynecology departments in the country," said the burly, silver-haired physician, proudly listing the ultrasound equipment, the fetal heart monitor and other medical machinery that would be standard in a U.S. facility but are almost unheard of in Ukraine.

The clinic stands out in another way as well. It recently achieved one of the lowest abortion rates in the country.

"Only 25% of all pregnant women who came to us in the first quarter of this year had abortions," Fedotovich said.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 27, 1995 Home Edition World Report Page 5 World Report Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong group--In an article on abortion rights in Ukraine in the June 6 World Report, the American-based institute Human Life International was incorrectly identified. It has no connection with the Roman Catholic Church.

That compares to an average of 60% in the rest of the country.

In a surviving legacy of the Communist neglect of consumer needs, including contraceptives, abortion remains the most common method of birth control in the former Soviet Union.

While three babies are born in the United States for each terminated pregnancy, in Ukraine, Russia and other parts of the ex-Soviet sixth of the world, there are two abortions for every birth. Estimates vary, but most experts say that the average Ukrainian woman, like her Russian sisters, has an average of four or five abortions in a lifetime. Some have 10 or more.

Statistics like that make the region fresh territory for U.S. anti-abortion activists.

A conference on "Love, Life and the Family" sponsored by the Maryland-based Catholic group Human Life International drew more than 600 delegates to Moscow last year. About 700 turned up at a similar conference in Kiev last week.

"We're trying to change minds," said the Rev. Matthew Habiger, the group's president.

A U.S. organization called Choose Life, working at the grass-roots level, has set up a new family planning center in Kiev. A representative, however, declined to reveal its location.

Human Life International claims 20 centers in Ukraine, but few people knowledgeable about the situation here believe that Ukraine or Russia are fertile grounds for widespread anti-abortion movements or for outright legal bans such as that imposed in neighboring, heavily Catholic, Poland two years ago.

"There aren't many seriously religious people here," said Irina Pohorelova, the 39-year-old editor of a Ukrainian political bulletin. "I can't imagine anyone I know having a baby because God wants it."

Even those Ukrainian health officials alarmed about the abortion rate do not see it as an issue of morality.

Fedotovich, for instance, took a medical viewpoint, saying: "This many abortions is not good for women's health."

Ukrainian women over the age of 20 have high rates of infertility, which many health officials blame on the reproductive damage caused by multiple abortions.

Editor Pohorelova, for example, said she has had "not many" abortions, "just four or five." A mother of three daughters, the eldest of which just turned 18, she had her last abortion two weeks ago. She said her IUD had failed.

"This is a practical problem, not a philosophical one," Pohorelova said, reflecting a widespread attitude among two generations of Soviet women.

After the former U.S.S.R. legalized abortion in 1921, it was quickly accepted by increasingly educated and urbanized Soviet women.

By 1925, 55% of all pregnancies in Ukraine ended in abortion--nearly the same rate as today--according to official statistics.

But legal abortion fell in and out of official Soviet favor over the years, apparently paralleling the rise and fall in mortality rates.

For instance, the dictator Josef Stalin banned abortion in 1936 when the millions of deaths from famines and mass executions under his rule began outstripping births. The ban was repealed in 1955, two years after Stalin died, and the Soviet Union experienced its own post-war baby boom.

Since then, abortion has been available on demand, paid for by the state, through the 12th week of pregnancy.

In contrast to the sparkling clean Old Kiev clinic here, however, many abortion facilities are unsterile, undersupplied and corrupt. While the services are technically free, clinic personnel often have to be bribed to provide anesthetics.

"Some of the women even brought their own syringes and surgical gloves," said Pohorelova of her most recent experience.

Despite the dismal conditions, a young Ukrainian anti-abortion activist who tried to dissuade the women from their decision that day had little luck. When they found out she was 20 years old and childless, "they told her to have three children, feed and clothe them on our $30 monthly salaries and then come back and talk to us," Pohorelova recalled.

That lack of understanding for the crushing burdens of women in this part of the world is likely to plague Western anti-abortion groups, especially those such as Human Life International, which oppose the use of contraceptives.

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