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BY Paul Kengor
Russia’s Vladimir Putin has sparked an international outcry by suddenly banning adoptions of Russian children by American families.
The legislation had been passed by the Russian Duma. Putin signed it into law on Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents. The action immediately halted the departure of hundreds of Russian orphans about to board planes to journey to a new life.
Condemnation has been swift and strong.
"Russian Adoption Ban Will Hit Disabled Children," noted a Washington Post headline. A headline at the Daily Beast described the ban as "cruel and vindictive to all." David Kramer and Arch Puddington of Freedom House dubbed it "a display of callousness unusual even by Vladimir Putin’s standards." They called the children "pawns in Putin’s power play."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., deemed the move "cruel and malicious" and "shameful and appalling," adding: "To punish innocent babies and children over a political disagreement between our governments is a new low, even for Putin’s Russia."
The U.S. State Department said it "deeply regrets" Putin’s move.
No country adopts as many Russian children as the United States. According to the U.S. State Department, there have been 60,000 adoptions by American couples since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That has now suddenly ended.
Why would Putin do this? The main reason seems to be retaliation against America for a recent U.S. law (the Magnitsky Act) aimed at human-rights abuses by Russia’s corrupt government. The act is named for a 37-year-old Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who worked to expose the murders and massive fraud committed under Putin’s regime. Magnitsky was beaten and left to die in prison. He is a symbol of the widespread persecution during Putin’s reign.
The Magnitsky Act bans Russian officials who have committed abuses from entry into the United States. Putin and his cronies have mightily protested the act.
The ban on American adoptions by Putin and the Duma appears to be retaliation.
Yet there is a possible added motivation that has not been mentioned by anyone. It might be a factor in Putin’s mind.
The reality is that Russia continues to hemorrhage its population. For about a decade and a half now, projections have been that Russia’s population will plummet from 140-150 million to 104 million by 2050. And what are the chief causal factors in this?
There are several notable health scourges in Russia, including epidemic levels of alcohol abuse that at one point in the 1990s lowered male life expectancy to an astounding 56 years, compared to 70 for women. In 1996, the life expectancy in the U.S. for men was 76 and 79 for women.
Two other blights, however, stand out as most responsible for Russia’s literal shrinkage: abortion and contraception — which occur in Russia at frighteningly high levels. Putin has tried to reverse both, but has failed to do so.
A little background: Abortion was legalized in Russia by the Bolsheviks shortly after they seized power in October 1917. Vladimir Lenin made good on his promise for an "unconditional annulment of all laws against abortion."
In short order, the number of abortions skyrocketed. By 1934, Moscow women were having three abortions for every live birth. The toll was so staggering that an appalled Joseph Stalin, the legendary mass murderer, actually banned abortion in 1936, fearing a vanishing populace.
In 1955, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, reconstituted legalized abortion. By 1958, there were five million abortions per year in the Soviet Union. (For the record, this contradicted Margaret Sanger’s optimistic prediction that "neither abortions nor contraception will be necessary or desired" once the Soviets’ "functioning communistic society" was in full bloom.)
By 1965, abortions peaked at 8.2 million in the USSR, dwarfing the worst years in America post-Roe v. Wade. By 1970, some 3,000 full-time abortionists in the Soviet Union were performing roughly 7.2 million abortions per year. By the 1980s, Soviet citizens comprised 5%-6% of the world’s population — but 25% of the world’s abortions.
No country on the planet achieved abortion deaths like the Soviet Union.
The Cold War and communism ended in Russia in the 1990s, but the runaway rates of abortion — as well as contraception — did not. Those rates continued into the Putin era, with the election of Vladimir Putin in March 2000.
An illuminating article in The Washington Post in February 2003 reported that about 5 million Russian couples (13%) are infertile, with more on the rise.
"In nearly three out of four cases," said the article, citing Russian health experts, "infertility is attributed to the woman, typically because of complications from one or more abortions." The Russian Health Ministry reported 1.7 abortions for every live birth, compared to a 1-to-3 ratio in the United States. That ratio was actually an improvement for previous decades, but only because contraception is being more widely used; together, it still adds up to a decline in overall population.
With rampant death at both the beginning and end of life, Russians are in a precipitous decline.
In response, Putin has taken major measures to try to stem this tide. In 2003, he implemented the first restrictions on abortion in Russia in almost 50 years, limiting abortions to within 12 weeks of gestation. Exemptions were allowed only for rape or the imprisonment, death or severe disability of the husband.
Remarkably, Putin’s Russia has even gone so far as to initiate a National Fertility Day, aimed at getting the culture to reproduce and make more children — more Russians.
Unfortunately, none of this has really worked much. Russia’s population drain remains.
And so, how might the adoption ban fit into this? Well, adopted Russians by foreigners — especially by Americans, who adopt more Russians than any other country — means more Russians leaving Russia. By banning adoptions, however, Putin’s country can retain more Russians. Less adoptions to Americans, and less Russians leaving the country and leaving Russian citizenship, means less of a loss of Russian population — Putin’s top priority.
Thus, for Putin and the Russians, there may be a measure of pure Russian demographics and nationalism behind this decision. In fact, the adoption ban was championed in the legislature by the nationalistic United Russia party, even before it got to Putin.
To be sure, I cannot say for certain that this inspired Putin’s decision; clearly, the Magnitsky Act seems the main issue. But as someone whose career has been spent studying Russia, including Putin, I suspect that this is quite possibly an added compelling factor. Consider these additional facts:
According to the State Department, in 2011, there were 3,400 Russian children adopted by foreign families, with roughly a third going to American families. The number adopted that year by Russian citizens was 7,400.
Putin is now promising a presidential decree to "modify the support mechanisms for orphaned children." In other words, he is implementing plans to apparently try to make up for lost adoptions to American parents, which he presumably hopes to shift to Russian parents.
Thus, overall, Putin’s adoption ban would have two "benefits," in his mind: It retaliates against the U.S. Magnitsky Act, and it retains more Russians in Russia.
If this is truly Vladimir Putin’s thinking, then we can’t rule out abortion and contraception as handmaidens to this horrible situation.
These two "evils" that the Catholic Church has long condemned so often have a host of unpredicted grave consequences. Once again, these handmaidens of the culture of death may have come knocking.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include
The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism,
The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, and, most recently, The Communist.