I go guesting frequently. This means that people I know--relatives of my host family, co-workers, people I meet in my town--invite me to their homes for tea or a meal. At least twice when I was in the company of women, I thought that women were asking me how many abortions I have had. I didn't know the Azerbaijani word for it, but it turns out it is the same as the American word.
Thinking that they surely couldn't be asking me this question, I asked them a question, and the conversation got back on track. Azerbaijani culture allows nosy questions, even to people one has just met. So I am frequently asked how old I am, how much money I made in the US, how much money I have in the bank and why my children are not married.
Then one day, the news came on in my home and it was about Barack Obama giving a graduation speech at Notre Dame. It was news that some Americans have an objection to abortions. My host mother, who has two children and teaches first grade, asked me about this, telling me that she has had several abortions. She asked me how many I have had and asked me why some Americans object to them.
I told her that Americans usually don't discuss any abortions they may have had and explained that most people feel that abortion should be legal but that it is something that should be avoided if possible by using contraception.
She agreed with me that in an ideal world, abortions would be rare, but said that Azerbaijani women have no choice because abortions are cheap and easily obtained, but the government does not supply contraceptives. I asked about condoms and she told me that men won't wear them. During our training, the Peace Corps doctors had mentioned to us in training that it is not unusual for women have 10 or more abortions, but we were absorbing so much at the time, that I put that fact out of my mind.
I was shocked and usually my way of dealing with shock is to do research. I found a study that an American university had done which confirmed that very few Azerbaijanis use contraception because it is not available, they don't know what it is or how to use it, it is too expensive or because most men won't wear condoms.
I should interject here that I am talking about married women. The lifestyle of a single woman outside of Baku does not normally include dating or going anywhere alone with a man, so pregnancy in a single woman does not normally happen. The average woman has had 3.5 abortions--since some are not married or are young enough to have future abortions, presumably over their lifetimes, married women average more than 3.5 apiece.
A book I consulted on the dissolution of the Soviet Union declares that abortions were legal and free in USSR countries beginning in 1920, but have risen since the collapse of the Soviet Union due to the disappearance of state-subsidized day care, the collapse of the state welfare system, and the deterioration of health care services.
One of my Peace Corps friends here told me that her host mother, who has two teen daughters and whose husband has a professional job, has had 4 abortions in the 18 months she has lived with that family. Others I talked to said Azerbaijani women tend to be very matter-of-fact about abortion--women feel there is no choice because they can't afford to raise more children. Most Azerbaijanis have 1 or 2 children--people who live in the country may have more.
I completely support a woman's right to choose, but find this practice disturbing, mostly because of the fact that men apparently would rather have their wives have repeated surgery than use contraception themselves. And also that women would be so passive in the face of this problem that to us is easily prevented.
I recently traveled to Georgia, which is similar to Azerbaijan--a post-Soviet Caucuses country next to Azerbaijan. I asked some young women about contraception there and they said it is available to all and that Georgians frown on abortion.
A few days later, after I had recovered somewhat from the shock, I began to think of what topics shock Azerbaijanis about Americans. I could identify several--the existence of the death penalty (many Azerbaijanis feel that the government should not have the right to kill people), the high number of teen pregnancies (unthinkable to have an unmarried teen girl pregnant here), the status of women (feeling sorry for women who have no husband or children or who are divorced) and the idea of people walking around with guns. All of these things frighten and shock many Azeris as much as our learning about a tradition of abortions.