“The decree of November 1920 for the RSFSR, which has since been copied in the other constituent republics, substituted, in the case of abortion, for the age-long policy of prohibition of a practice that could not be stamped out by repression, the unprecedented policy of converting it into a social service under strict public control.” This extract from a travel report of two British Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, from 1936 about their journey to the Soviet Union is but one example of the interest the Soviet legalization of abortion created in the West. Being part of a broader interest in the Soviet experiment at the time, this particular issue was discussed in the context of the discourse about birth control in interwar Britain. This interest manifested itself even in a concrete transnational medical cooperation, both in the form of British Physicians working or travelling in the USSR and Field Offices of the Soviet Union’s National Health Department in Britain as well as other Western countries. In this essay, it will be analysed how the Soviet practice of abortion influenced the discourse about birth control by looking at how it was depicted in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the official publication of the British Medical Association (BMA) and “Britain’s largest circulation medical journal.” In order to understand how the Soviet experience could serve as a projection screen for the British physicists, the practices of and debates about abortion in Britain and the Soviet Union as well as the transnational connections, thus the broader international interwar discourse about the topic, have to be portrayed first. This essay is telling thus two stories: one about changing notions of abortion in medical as well as political terms, and another about the transfer of knowledge and ideas across the boundary separating two distinctively different economic and political systems. While military and economic cooperation across this border in the interwar period are well explored, aspects like medical history still require research. Julie Thomas has already presented the links between Soviet and American scientists in the field of birth control as well as its international aspect. This essay extends this research to the British case. Although contraceptives are rather absent in the discourse presented in the Journal, abortion will be regarded as one aspect of the broader topic of birth control, including the different types of contraceptives, throughout the essay.
At the end of the 19th century, the British discourse on birth control was shaped by the falling birth rate, which dropped from 36 births per thousand inhabitants in 1876 to 15 in 1930, to a large degree due to increased contraceptive practice. The “population question” this tendency created added an explicit class aspect to the older Malthusian fear “of unchecked population growth geometrically exceeding the arithmetical ability of a nation to provide adequate subsistence for its mushrooming numbers.” With the criminalisation of abortion in 1861, “public law became more clearly involved in the private sexual and reproductive practice of women.” Both tendencies were accompanied by a growing interest in – especially working-class – motherhood, whereby the maternal (and thus patriotic) abilities of the lower classes were questioned by its middle-class observers. The world’s first organization advocating birth control – presented as a solution to the “overpopulated” lower classes – was the Malthusian League, founded in 1877. In the interwar period the relatively small organisation turned to eugenics for “racial improvement”, just as earlier advocates of a “qualitative” improvement of the population had done since the Boer War. Eugenic views were popular in different parts of the British society as well, from the imperial administration to the radical Left. These ideas, as well as Marie Stopes’ – supposedly the most famous British birth control advocate at the time – publications, most famously “Married Love” from 1918, created a new environment in which changing ideas about women’s rights and female sexuality were openly discussed. One aspect of this new discourse was the campaign for the legalisation of abortion, which became a crucial issue for the feminist movement at the time. Abortion was, especially among the working-class, still a widespread means of birth control, but it involved a high mortality rate, a popular fact in the birth control discourse. The Abortion Law Reform Association, a “feminist pressure group” formed in 1936, campaigned for the legalisation of abortion as a means of the improvement of working-class women. The campaign “saw maternalism and reproductive control not in opposition but as complementary”, but also stressed abortion as a means of women’s self-determination and control over their own body. For some, the legalisation in the Soviet Union was an inspiration for their further striving. The British Left in general, however, unlike their German comrades, never focused on the issue. The Labour party refused to consider the issue some of their female party members advocated for, “arguing that birth control was a matter of private conscience outside the realm of politics.” While the discourse was opened, especially on the feminist Left, to full access to all kinds of birth control, actual changes remained small in the interwar period. In 1930, the government at least allowed to distribute birth control information in maternal clinics of the public health service, if a further pregnancy “was deemed to be detrimental to health”, which gave birth control at least a degree of respectability. The “population scare” of the late 1930s, however, shifted the debate again towards the quantity of the population and stopped the government to take any further steps.
In the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks realized, in many respects, an gender order of society alternative to the capitalist one, at least in the first decade up to Stalin’s full seizure of power in the 1930s. Most importantly, this meant a critique of “the conventional family and its household economy”, which had already been apparent in socialist theory before the revolution. The emancipation of women would follow the abolition of private property and sexual relations would become a “purely private affair.” Although reality did not entirely accord with these ideas, communal facilities like dining rooms, nurseries or kindergartens, which should transfer former household labour to the public sphere, as well as the establishment of civil marriage and divorce were first steps towards this goal. The discussion of sexuality in the first socialist state was mostly directed towards the question of the upbringing of children in a sexually free society, which should again happen in a communal manner. The most momentous measure, however, was the already mentioned legalisation of abortion in 1920. Prior to the Revolution, “the practice of abortion had been widespread in Russia.” The law should abolish illegal abortion by offering every women a free and legal abortion up to the third month of pregnancy, “provided it was carried out by a doctor in a hospital”, which was the first legal opportunity to terminate pregnancy worldwide. Yet, the law stated that abortion was no woman’s right, but an “evil” that was legalized to decrease maternal mortality originating in illegal abortions. Once the described communal facilities would be available to every woman, there would be no more need for abortion, so the belief of the Soviet officials. The law generated an enormous demand which could not be supplied by the hospital accommodations and the special “abortaria” in the bigger cities. To limit numbers, priority was given especially to those who had already several children. The legalisation was considered a success by the government: the number of illegal abortions and thereby the rate of maternal mortality was reduced significantly. Abortion, however, was a controversial topic and opposed by many in the medical profession, the same way other aspects of the new gender politics were not endorsed by many male party members. As in Britain, this discourse also included eugenic ideas, although without any racial aspect due to the multi-ethnic identity of the Soviet Union. The fact that until 1917 Western publications determined the Russian eugenic discourse shows the truly transnational character of the broad topic of population policies in the first half of the 20th century. In the course of the general drawback of many revolutionary achievements and the erection of Stalin’s dictatorship, finally, the 1920 law was reversed in 1936 and all eugenic thinking and research prohibited. This measure was part of a general “effort to control women’s bodies.” After the criminalisation, abortion was depicted as opposite to “the happiness of Soviet women and children.” Contraceptives remained, as in the 1920s, not legislatively regulated, but very hard to obtain, which is also why they barely appear in Western writing about birth control in the Soviet Union.
The two national discourses on medicine and birth control were in many ways linked between each other. One example is the Socialist Medical Association (SMA), an organisation linked to the Labour Party and aimed at establishing a “socialist programme for health.” Several of its members used the Soviet example, especially in times of the economic depression, to propagate this aim and met Soviet delegates at the “Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931”, whose speeches impressed them deeply. Somerville Hastings, a founding member of the SMA, even travelled the Soviet Union himself, which shaped him decisively. Back in Britain, he stressed the efficiency and organization of the Soviet health and birth control system. His positive views on the Soviet system of maternity policy influenced the SMA’s founding statement on this issue and its subsequent policy. Many SMA members were also influenced by a book by the “American socialist doctor and medical historian” Henry Sigerist titled “Socialised Medicine in the Soviet Union.” Margaret Sanger, however, was probably the most influential international figure of the interwar birth control movement and discourse. The American nurse, birth control activist and socialist was active not only in the US, but also in Britain, where she co-founded two international organisations centred in London, which collected and distributed information on birth control from and to different countries and “encouraged the exchange of medical research on birth control internationally.” Although she herself had only little contact with Soviet scientists, the international conferences on the issue of birth control she organized served as a ground for Soviet and Western physicians to meet and exchange their ideas. These conferences are examples of a vital scientific exchange of birth control information between Western and Soviet scientists in the interwar period. The USSR was “the site of an active exchange of artists, workers, and scientists”, including physicians. While the majority of Soviet medical texts on birth control relied heavily on Western research and even contraceptive devices and chemical formulas were imported in the USSR, Western scholars, on their part, used Soviet statistics and the clinical experience for their writings, as we will see later. The Soviet Government even “encouraged the visits of scholars, artists, engineers, and workers in the first years following the revolution”, which fascinated many in the West. It was exactly the different situation in Britain or the West and the Soviet Union in terms of birth control which made the country so interesting and special.
As mentioned earlier, the British Medical Journal was an important media for the discourse inside the medical profession, which was, in general terms, rather opposed to the radical demands of the British birth control movement. A large share of the weekly papers (about 24,000 in 1918, compared to 43,000 in 1939) went to the members of the BMA. While it had been silent on the issue of birth control in the Victorian period, following the “medical profession’s virtual conspiracy of silence on the subject”, it became a platform for an open debate on the issue after the First World War. Still, many members of the BMA remained hostile to birth control. All the more astonishing is the way the Soviet practice of abortion was used for the debate in the Journal from the second half of the 1920s onwards. Although many of the following articles were not written by BMJ authors themselves, but only publications of other sources, the journal still served as a distributor of these ideas and played thereby an important part in the discourse.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, it is striking how differently the Soviet Union as well as their abortion practices are depicted. The Soviet reference, it can be stated, was primarily used to underline the different positions already apparent in the above described British discourse. For example, in a report about a meeting of scientists in January 1927 on the “medico-legal and ethical aspects of abortion”, the Soviet legalisation is rejected as purely ideologically motivated, while, according to the report, “medical indications alone should be considered in deciding on the induction of abortion.” The Soviet example, together with the demand for the legalisation of abortion in the UK, is thus rejected for ideological reasons. The report is even directly referring to the above described transnational distribution of ideas by stating that “the spread of loose views in the profession regarding its responsibility must tend towards a similar state of affairs in this country.” Only one month after this report was published, however, W. Horsley Gantt, “Chief of the Medical Division of the American Relief Administration, Unit Leningrad”, gives a positive impression of the Soviet medical system from his own stay in the country. Although the civil war had created a difficult situation for Soviet physicians, the government “had done what they could” to improve the medical system and guarantee freedom of research. The legalisation of abortion is, according to him, reducing the actual number of abortions, due to the state regulation. He also mentions educational films on the issue, “explaining the dangers of irregular abortions.” Although he does not explicitly state that this practice should be applied to the British case, the note that the number of abortions is “fewer than in other countries” implies that the Soviet system is achieving a better result than the British one and thus makes a statement in favour of the legalisation for the reader.
Apart from these rather personal views on the question, the Journal also refers to the international level and publishes the Report of the Health Section of the League of Nations on “Abortion as a cause of maternal mortality” in 1930, in which we can find the earlier mentioned interest in maternity. This aspect of abortion, according to the report, “has only gradually been appreciated” and is presented as an argument for a reform of the legislation of abortion in the member states. The Soviet reference is crucial in this argumentation, as it serves as a positive example. The presented statistics are used to show, as Gantt did earlier, that the legalisation decreased the maternal mortality, not only by carrying out the abortions professionally, but also earlier than illegal abortions, which are “frequently practised at a late stage of pregnancy, adding considerably to the maternal danger.” The total number of abortion do, according to further statistics, “not necessarily increase as a result of legalization, while the decline in secret abortions during the last few years and the performance of the operations in hospital have been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in maternal mortality.” The argument presented in the report is based entirely on scientific ground and supposedly neutral or unpolitical: “Whatever arguments may be urged on moral or other grounds against the legalization of abortion in [the] USSR it appears to have been effective in preventing the shocking waste of maternal life.” The argument of the 1927 meeting is thus questioned by stating that the Soviet example is achieving a positive result notwithstanding the ideological implications behind it.
Shortly after, another report is published, this time about the “impressions of medical tourists in Russia”, presented at a meeting “under the auspices of the Society for Cultural Relations between the Peoples of the British Commonwealth and the [USSR]” at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The reporting doctors draw a positive picture of the Soviet medical system, much like the Webbs or Gantt. They stress the professionalism of the procedure of abortions and the information given to the women before and afterwards. This shows how influential the Soviet reference was among at least a part of the British medical profession, given that a pro-Soviet organisation could organise a meeting headed by the Editor of the Lancet, alongside the BMJ probably the most influential medical publication. Another publication, a speech held at the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society in 1932 titled “Abortion – a discussion on its social, legal, and ethical aspects” even includes an implicit demand for a change of the abortion law – albeit not in every case – in a report on the Soviet abortion practice, “so as to allow these unfortunate, desperate women to place their cases before some authority who could, upon sufficient cause being shown, authorize the termination of pregnancy under decent conditions, instead of, as at present, forcing her to place herself in the hands of an ignorant abortionist.” In other cases, the transnational character of the issue is stated: “We must also remember that today no nation stands alone. Owing to the ease of communication through the agency of the Press, broadcasting, and the interchange of ideas at conferences, and so forth, there is a very great tendency for peoples of different nationality to act in concert. […] What is approved by one people today is likely to influence very largely the policy of another nation tomorrow.” As the first example shows, however, the Soviet reference was not only used in a positive way, but also to justify the current legislation by defining medical reasons for abortions as the only legitimate justification, as a debate at a meeting of a sub-division of the BMA shows, in which the different views on abortion and the Soviet reference are presented by the different speakers. The report contains a positive depiction of the Soviet system by another member of the meeting, who points out that British physicians should study the Soviet “unique experiment” carefully, since “Russia [has] one great advantage – it [is] not, like ourselves, tied down by tradition.” Yet another speaker uses the Soviet reference to demonstrate the dangers of abortions which, in his sight, were misrepresented by many: “If the truth were known about the Russian cases it would open many eyes.” Others also questioned the positive picture presented of Soviet abortion clinics and still others warned that “political prejudice against Russia was warping the judgement.” The issue thus remained controversial and part of the general debate about the issue of abortion in interwar Britain, in the public as well as in the medical profession.
This cross-cultural analysis of the abortion question, a central issue in the history of sexuality, helps us to understand the relationship between sexuality and modernity. It shows us how two so distinctively different ideological systems like the British and the Soviet ones both struggled to find answers to the question of how a more open, especially female sexuality – a transnational phenomenon in the interwar period – was compatible with the challenges of modernity and modern life. Their cooperation in this issue thus reveals similarities of the two otherwise so different systems. The Soviet reversion of the legalisation in 1936, moreover, demonstrates how limited a feminist stance on the issue of birth control was at the time. The fact that abortion was not legalised when the Labour party established the NHS after the Second World War, although the Soviet-friendly SMA members “had a crucial part to play in the formation of Labour Party health policy in the decade culminating in the foundation of the NHS”, proves not only the ignorance of the British Left about this topic, but also the limited scale of the Soviet reference in the long run. In fact, it was not until 1967 that the Abortion Act “opened up access to legal and safe abortion on a variety of grounds and established freedom of choice as a cornerstone of ‘second wave’ feminism.” The Labour party, which passed the law, albeit only “by means of a private member’s bill sponsored by a Liberal”, thus finally fulfilled the demand of the feminist groups who had campaigned for its legalisation since the interwar period. At the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet abortion statistics were published in 1988 as part of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the topic again captured the British attention, as articles in the Lancet show. Meanwhile, however, the discourse had shifted, the Communist country was no longer regarded as a positive example. On the contrary, a “serious shortage of contraceptives” was seen as the reason for the tremendously high amount of abortions. The fascination for or rejection of the unique situation of legalized abortion in the USSR from 1920 until 1936 in the British medical profession was thus but an expression of an interest in an experiment yet too revolutionary for their own country.
Abortion As A Cause Of Maternal Mortality. Report Of The Health Section Of The League Of Nations, in British Medical Journal, 04.10.1930, p. 566.
Beckwith Whitehouse: A Paper on the indications for the induction of abortion, in British Medical Journal, 20.08.1932, p. 336.
British Medical Association. Clinical and scientific proceedings, in British Medical Journal, 26.11.1932, pp. 968-969.
Gantt, W. Horsley: A Medical Review Of Soviet Russia. V. The Medical Profession, Soviet Science, And Soviet Sanitation, in British Medical Journal, 05.02.1927, pp. 244-245 and 19.02.1927, p. 339.
Reports of Societies. Abortion: Medico-legal and ethical aspects, in British Medical Journal, 29.01.1927, p. 188.
Reports of Societies. Law and Ethics of Abortion, in British Medical Journal, 07.05.1932, p. 844.
Soviet Medicine And Hygiene: Impressions Of Medical Tourists In Russia, in British Medical Journal, 05.12.1931, p. 1043.
USSR. Abortion and Contraception, in The Lancet, 18.11.1989, p. 1208.
Webb, Sidney; Webb, Beatrice: Soviet Communism. A New Civilisation (London: Victor Gollancz, 1937).
Bartrip, P.W.J.: Mirror of Medicine. A History of the British Medical Journal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Brooke, Stephen: ‚A New World for Women‘? Abortion Law Reform in Britain during the 1930s, American Historical Review, 106 (2001), pp. 431-459.
Buckley, Mary: Women and Ideology in the Soviet Union (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989).
Goldman, Wendy Z.: Women, the State and Revolution. Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Graves, Pamela: Introduction, in Gruber, Helmut; Graves, Pamela (Ed.): Women and Socialism. Socialism and Women. Europe between the Two World Wars (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998).
Hoffmann, David L.: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914–1939 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2011).
Kaminsky, Lauren: Utopian Visions of Family Life in the Stalin-Era Soviet Union, Central European History, 44 (2011), pp. 63-91.
Krementsov, Nikolai: From ‚Beastly Philosphy‘ to Medical Genetics. Genetics in Russia and the Soviet Union, Annals of Science, 68 (2011), pp. 61-92.
Lewis, Jane: The ideology and politics of birth control in inter-war England, Women’s Studies Int. Quart., 2 (1979), pp. 33-48.
Loudon, Irvine: Death in Childbirth: An International Study of Maternal Care and Maternal Mortality 1800-1950 (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011).
Soloway, Richard Allen: Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877-1930 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
Stewart, John: ‚Science Fights Death‘. David Stark Murray, Science, and Socialism in Interwar Britain, Annals of Science, 57 (2000), pp. 143-161.
Stewart, John: Socialist Proposals for Health Reform in Inter-War Britain. The Case of Somerville Hastings, Medical History, 39 (1995), pp. 338-357.
Thomas, Julie: International Intercourse: Establishing a Transnational Discourse on Birth Control in the Interwar Era (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2004).
 Webb, Sidney; Webb, Beatrice: Soviet Communism. A New Civilisation (London: Victor Gollancz, 1937), p. 829.
 Thomas, Julie: International Intercourse: Establishing a Transnational Discourse on Birth Control in the Interwar Era (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2004), p. 1-2.
 Bartrip, P.W.J.: Mirror of Medicine. A History of the British Medical Journal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 216.
 Thomas: Intercourse, p. 44.
 Brooke, Stephen: ‚A New World for Women‘? Abortion Law Reform in Britain during the 1930s, American Historical Review, 106 (2001), pp. 431-459.
 Soloway, Richard Allen: Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877-1930 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. xi-xii.
 Brooke: New World, p. 435.
 Lewis, Jane: The ideology and politics of birth control in inter-war England, Women’s Studies Int. Quart., 2 (1979), pp. 33-48.
 Loudon, Irvine: Death in Childbirth: An International Study of Maternal Care and Maternal Mortality 1800-1950 (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011), pp. 3-4.
 Brooke: New World, pp. 432-442.
 Graves, Pamela: Introduction, in Gruber, Helmut; Graves, Pamela (Ed.): Women and Socialism. Socialism and Women. Europe between the Two World Wars (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998), p. 173.
 Lewis: Birth control, pp. 34-42.
 Kaminsky, Lauren: Utopian Visions of Family Life in the Stalin-Era Soviet Union, Central European History, 44 (2011), pp. 63-91.
 Goldman, Wendy Z.: Women, the State and Revolution. Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 254.
 Loudon: Childbirth, p. 19.
 Goldman: Women, p. 256.
 Loudon: Chilbirth, p. 19.
 Buckley, Mary: Women and Ideology in the Soviet Union (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), pp. 37-39.
 Hoffmann, David L.: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914–1939 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 133.
 Krementsov, Nikolai: From ‚Beastly Philosphy‘ to Medical Genetics. Genetics in Russia and the Soviet Union, Annals of Science, 68 (2011), pp. 61-92.
 Hoffmann: Socialism, pp. 140-142.
 Thomas: Intercourse, p. 162.
 Ibid. P. 154.
 Stewart, John: Socialist Proposals for Health Reform in Inter-War Britain. The Case of Somerville Hastings, Medical History, 39 (1995), pp. 338-357.
 Stewart, John: ‚Science Fights Death‘. David Stark Murray, Science, and Socialism in Interwar Britain, Annals of Science, 57 (2000), pp. 143-161.
 Thomas: Intercourse, pp. 2-14, 44, 96-97, 164, 176.
 Ibid., pp. 34-35.
 Bartrip: Mirror, p. 216
 Ibid., pp. 229-232.
 Reports of Societies. Abortion: Medico-legal and ethical aspects, in British Medical Journal, 29.01.1927, p. 188.
 Gantt, W. Horsley: A Medical Review Of Soviet Russia. V. The Medical Profession, Soviet Science, And Soviet Sanitation, in BMJ, 05.02.1927, pp. 244-245 and 19.02.1927, p. 339.
 Abortion As A Cause Of Maternal Mortality. Report Of The Health Section Of The League Of Nations, in BMJ, 04.10.1930, p. 566.
 Soviet Medicine And Hygiene: Impressions Of Medical Tourists In Russia, in BMJ, 05.12.1931, p. 1043.
 Reports of Societies. Law and Ethics of Abortion, in BMJ, 07.05.1932, p. 844.
 Beckwith Whitehouse: A Paper on the indications for the induction of abortion, in BMJ, 20.08.1932, p. 336.
 British Medical Association. Clinical and scientific proceedings, in BMJ, 26.11.1932, pp. 968-969.
 Stewart: Science, p. 161.
 Brooke: New World, p. 432.
 USSR. Abortion and Contraception, in The Lancet, 18.11.1989, p. 1208.