Illness was a second most important reason women cited for seeking abortions. Women’s health was shockingly poor by modern standards, especially in the rural areas. They suffered from a wide number of chronic infections, complications from previous births, venereal disease, fibroids, and other untreated illnesses (Goldman 279).
The Commissariat of Justice of the RSFSR issued a decree on November 18, 1920, which permitted abortions to be carried by doctors in hospitals. However, abortions were rarely granted to a woman undergoing her first pregnancy. Even after abortion was legalized, thousands of women still turned to babki, midwives, hairdressers, nurses and a variety of home remedies to terminate their pregnancy. Babki performed traditional (pre-Revolutionary) methods of abortion. They used knitting needles, spindles, wire, crochet hooks, shoe buttoners, goose feathers, carrots, and plant roots. They brewed teas from affron, chamomile, aloe, and ergot. Other self-administrated remedies included heavy lifting, hot baths, mustard plasters, as well as doses of bleach and quinine. A. P. Vinogradova, a twenty-eight-year-old with seven children, was aborted by a neighbor with a sugar solution and later died from a blood infection. Another woman, more fortunate, who had been aborted by a midwife, later suffered from a swelling of the ovary, while E. Fominkova developed blood poisoning and died following a self-induced abortion (Evans 760). Illegal abortions constituted about 42% of the total number of abortions in 1923 and almost 29% in 1925. In Moscow itself, illegal abortions had comprised 43% of the total in 1924 and about 12% in 1926. The vast majority of women who entered the hospitals with bleeding, infection and high fever were the recipients of illegal abortions.
The upbringing of children is normally considered women’s business, and so it was in Soviet Russia in the late 1920’s to the early 1930’s. It was women, not men who wrote again and again to the authorities asking for help for their children who were “barefoot and hungry.” It was women, too, who occasionally despaired and wrote to the authorities, begging them to have their children taken into state care. If women were the main providers of childcare, it followed that they would also be the ones held primarily responsible for child neglect. Child neglect was a major problem in urban Russia during the 1930s, and was associated with family breakdown. It was also usually linked to housing problems, high divorce rates, shortages of food and consumer goods, and the loss of childcare centers.
Industrial construction, not housing, was the top priority of the Five Year Plans of the 1930s. It was a burden for mothers to raise their children in kommunalkas, which were communal apartments containing one family per room. Very often, there were no bathrooms and no running water. However, not everyone was able to live even in these “luxury” conditions. The less fortunate residents made their homes in corridors and corners in other people’s apartments. The children of a Moscow family of six begged for rescue from their accommodation in a cubbyhole under the staircase (Fitzpatrick 47). The difficulty of urban housing conditions forced families into miserably confined spaces and contributed to the high rate of desertion by husbands, especially after the birth of a child. Women ended up being the sole breadwinners for families that often consisted of a mother, one or two children, and the irreplaceable babushka (grandmother), who ran the household (Fitzpatrick 139). The shortages of housing also meant that divorced couples often remained in the same apartment, together with their children, even though relations were so bad that they were regularly taken to court for beating each other. Most commonly beatings were inflicted on women and children. These types of conditions of communal living often generated mental illness and created nightmarish conditions.