‘This is a judicial error’: Prosecuting Illegal Abortion Cases in the USSR, 1936-55
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Amanda M. Williams
Beginning in 1936, the Soviet Union prohibited the abortion procedure, except for specific medical conditions, in order to increase the population. Stalin’s administration did not just rely on the prohibition of the abortion procedure but used doctors and hospital administrations to conduct medical surveillance. Doctors informed law enforcement if they suspected a patient of having an illegal abortion. Legal officials, ideally, worked in tandem with medical personnel to investigate and prosecute the woman who had the illegal abortion as well as find the person who performed the procedure. This post focuses on the forced partnership that developed between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Justice to report and prosecute illegal abortion cases, specifically using a case study from the Georgian SSR in 1951. This illegal abortion case aptly illustrates the tensions felt by women and by medical and legal officials.
Poster issued by the Ministry of Health, 'Illegal Abortion is a Threat to Life' (Vnebol'nichniyi abort - ugroza zhizni), 1967. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.
In April 1951, the People’s Court of Tbilisi began its trial of A.G. Kazarova and M.G. Mkrtechean. Kazarova was accused of performing a criminal abortion; Mkrtechean was accused of seeking an illegal abortion. Both women plead not guilty. In late November 1950, Mkrtechean claimed she felt lower back pain and began bleeding from the vaginal area after carrying a large amount of firewood into her home. She asked Kazarova, a paramedic who lived on the same street, to help her stop the bleeding. Kazarova came to Mkrtechean’s home and gave her an injection to stop the bleeding. The next day, investigators went to Mkrtechean’s home and interrogated her about the incident. During this interrogation, they claimed that Mkrtechean had had a criminal abortion. She denied having an abortion and when asked what Kazarova was doing at her home late the previous night, she explained the story as described above. The investigators gave a statement for Mkrtechean to sign; however, what she signed indicated that she paid 300 roubles for Kazarova to perform an illegal abortion. Mkrtechean was then taken to a doctor for a gynaecological examination, who determined she did not have a criminal abortion and the doctor later testified as such in court; yet legal officials were persistent that a crime had taken place. They had Mkrtechean examined by a forensic expert who agreed with the original doctor: no abortion had taken place. Yet, another doctor who was called on to perform an examination disagreed, even though there were no traces of forceps, burns, or erosions that would cause an abortion on Mkrtechean’s cervix. In addition, multiple witnesses testified that Mkrtechean had never asked for an abortion nor paid Kazarova for one. In spite of the experts’ and eye witnesses’ testimony and lack of physical evidence, the People’s Court of Tbilisi convicted both Mkrtechean and Kazarova on 21 April 1951. Mkrtechean was sentenced to two years in prison; Kazarova for three years.
The women appealed their case. Kazarova wrote to the editor of Pravda pleading, ‘In spite of this expertise of outstanding scientists of our country, in the People's Court… I was convicted of performing a criminal abortion, when there is no objective data that Mkrtechean was pregnant and no evidence on the production of an illegal abortion. This is a judicial error, refuted by the most prominent experts in this field of knowledge. I will be punished with 3 years of imprisonment in the absence of any guilt.’ The letter was ultimately not published. The women’s case made its way to the Supreme Court of the USSR where Mkrtechean was acquitted; Kazarova, however, received the reply, ‘Your case has been checked by the Supreme Court of the USSR and it is established that you are condemned correctly’.
This case is interesting for several reasons. First, most illegal abortions came to the attention of investigative bodies when women were seeking emergency medical attention after a botched abortion procedure and hospital officials reported the incident. Yet in this instance, it is unclear how prosecutors even found out about Mkrtechean’s alleged abortion. Second, there was no clear evidence of an abortion occurring. Even the physician who testified that she believed that the procedure occurred admitted that there was no evidence of forceps or other indicators that the abortion took place. Lastly, the fact that Mkrtechean’s sentence was appealed. Each acquittal had to be reported and justified in quarterly reports to regional procuracy officials. These procuracy officials would then investigate what occurred in the case and assess whether they agreed with the verdict. If the acquittal was deemed to be justified, then the procuracy would assign the blame to the investigators and procurator who signed off on the case to be delivered to the court. If they felt the acquittal was unjustified, then the case was sent back to the court that had mounted the appeal to begin with and blame was placed on the judge who assigned the acquittal and the procurator who did not contest the decision. The fact that Kazarova’s sentence was upheld was probably due her status as an alleged abortionist.
Legal officials largely felt that investigating illegal abortion cases was difficult since the cases relied on medical personnel to report them and provide the necessary medical documents. This difficulty was exacerbated because doctors were already disinclined to report criminal abortions: physicians often waited far longer than the legally allotted twenty-four hours to inform the necessary prosecutors, let alone to provide the paperwork that investigators and prosecutors needed. Legal personnel worked on finding a balance of avoiding much of the intensive investigative work while also prosecuting and sentencing women and abortionists to satisfy their work quotas. The intense pressure to meet deadlines and successfully solve cases led to officials not only construing existing data, but also fabricating the evidence at times. This meant that only a small percentage of abortionists were caught, prosecuted, and sentenced. Therefore, the reason for Kazarova’s verdict could be directly related to the pressure legal officials faced to meet their case quota as well as to ideologically illustrate they were attempting to fight criminal abortions in the capital.
From the article “Kriminal’nyi abort”, Zdorov’e, May 1967.
Prosecuting illegal abortion cases was also extremely difficult. The Ministry of Justice continually blamed physicians and hospital administrations for failing to report illegal abortions or failing to include vital facts and documents needed to prosecute a case. Despite physicians legally only having twenty-four hours to submit their report, prosecutors’ offices throughout the Soviet Union consistently complained and reported that they most often received material regarding illegal abortions between twenty to thirty-five days after the incident had occurred. In addition, Soviet investigative bodies and the procuracy argued they had a hard time presenting a case without them.
Even when cases made it to court, the prosecuting and sentencing of abortionists or women who claimed to have ‘self-aborted’ was uneven throughout the Soviet Union. Although Party policy attempted to enforce and harshen the sentences for abortionists and the women who paid them, in reality, judges and procurators did not always practice this. For sentencing, most women were publicly reprimanded and had to pay a fine. There is no clear definition or explanation of what a public reprimand entailed. The fines, however, were usually small and still would not have been equivalent to the amount that the women had paid the abortionist. This was viewed as a win-win scenario for investigators as they avoided potentially intensive and unproductive searches for abortionists, closed a case, and kept the number of convictions under the abortion laws high enough to satisfy their superiors. Other sentences included correctional labour or up to several years in prison. For a woman who sought and had a criminal abortion, she received up to two years in prison. For an abortionist who had some medical training, they received a minimum of three years, with a one year suspicion of practicing medicine once released from prison. In the post-war period, while legally the sentences did not change, judges were increasing the sentences of abortionists to up to ten years in prison.
Ultimately, medical personnel and legal officials promoted the state’s pronatalist agenda. The state attempted to control women’s sexuality and reproductive autonomy with both legal punitive administrations and medical institutions. Physicians and medical officials kept records of consultations, appointments, and reported women who had illegal abortions. Investigative bodies and prosecutors would humiliate women by exposing their private life in court and potentially publishing their crime and verdict. In addition, women’s punishments ranged from fines to lengthy jail sentences. While policing women’s reproduction ultimately did not work, the abortion surveillance system that was enacted by the health and legal administrations tied into larger issues of the state’s social control of Soviet citizens.
Amanda M. Williams is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of History at the University of Leeds, UK. She is completing a thesis titled ‘Materials for Maternity: The Abortion Procedure, Physicians, and Politics in the Soviet Union, 1944-68’. Her overall research interests include state-citizen relations, medical surveillance and policing, and gender history. For more, see her academic page [https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/history/pgr/2047/amanda-m-williams] or follow her at Twitter @AMWilliams__.
 Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiyskoy Federatsii (hereafter, GARF) f. P9474, op 33, d 375, l. 42.
 GARF f. P9474, op 33, d 375, l. 19zh.
 Peter H. Solomon, Soviet Criminal Justice Under Stalin (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 371.
 GARF f. 1831, op. 32, d. 54, l. 55, 70.
 GARF f. 8009, op. 22, d. 53, l. 12.
 Solomon, p. 219.