The Baby Doom: Selective Abortions in Armenia

When 35-year-old Narine made the journey from her village to Yerevan, she wondered whether she would keep the baby. A mother of two girls, she needed a son. “I have to bear a boy to inherit my husband’s family name. He should have a son by his side,” she would later say.

“It is not a secret that selective abortion is a problem in Armenia, and fortunately we have begun speaking about it.”

The trip ended in yet another abortion. She had traveled to Yerevan for an ultrasound to check the sex of the fetus. The results showed the baby would be a girl, and thus she made the difficult choice to end her pregnancy. It was an emotionally taxing decision. Narine would develop depression; a sense of guilt and bouts of crying would haunt her for weeks.

Narine’s story is in no way unique in the former Soviet state, where in the days of communism, abortion was the national and primary method of birth control. The practice continues. For generations, Armenian women have undergone abortions as a form of family planning—controlling the size of their family and, more recently, the sex of their offspring.

“This is not an ‘Armenian’ phenomenon, just an unfortunate legacy of the USSR,” said Dr. Kim Hekimian, who teaches at the public health department of the American University of Armenia, in an interview with the Armenian Weekly.

Why boys?

It is not uncommon for an Armenian woman in her 40s to have numerous abortions. According to a 1995 study conducted at a Yerevan abortion clinic, the median number of abortions for women over 40 was 8. Some have had as many as 25 by the time they’ve reached menopause.

From an economic standpoint, it is expected. The procedure was available at no cost to the patient during the Soviet era. Today, a small price has been tagged on—somewhere around $25. Still, it is affordable, at least enough to compete with the price of a year’s supply of the birth control pill.

Selective abortion also has its socioeconomic motives. Traditionally, when a girl grows up and marries, she leaves her parents’ residence. “The return on the investment, particularly in the rural areas, is low if you have one child and that child is a girl. A male offspring, on the other hand, would bring his wife into the home and take care of the in-laws,” said Hekimian.

Armenian law allows for a woman to have an abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy—a period during which the sex of the fetus may not be determined. This suggests that if the determinant of some abortions is the sex of the fetus, those abortions are being conducted illegally.

“The data on births [in Armenia] shows that the sex-at-birth rates are abnormal: [currently] 114 boys to 100 girls,” United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Assistant Representative Garik Hayrapetyan told the Armenian Weekly. “The issue exists in Armenia.”

Nature already skews the sex ratio at birth, with 105 males to every 100 females. The abnormal gap between male and female births became noticeable in the 1990’s, coincidentally during a time when ultrasounds became available in the country.

“It is not a secret that selective abortion is a problem in Armenia, and fortunately we have begun speaking about it,” said Marine Margaryan, a social worker and project coordinator for Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK Armenia). “But still, for the majority, it is fine to have an abortion based on gender. The stereotypical and biased approach to the role females should have in our society led us to this kind of gender imbalance.”

Reports and warnings

The issue of selective abortion hit Armenia hard in recent months, when a number of reports claimed that Armenia was among the top countries where the practice had reached a worrying proportion. According to the 2011 Gender Gap Report, which was conducted by the World Economic Forum, Armenia has the worse score, after China, in female to male sex ratio at birth. Neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan showed similar trends.

In October 2011, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed a resolution condemning selective abortion. “There is strong evidence that prenatal sex selection is not limited to Asia. In recent years, a departure from the natural sex ratio at birth has been observed in a number of Council of Europe member states and has reached worrying proportions in Albania, Armenia, and Azerbaijan,” read the resolution, which then called on the three countries to investigate and monitor the situation, and provide support to awareness-raising initiatives.

“It was not only shocking, but also very embarrassing for us,” said Dr. Gohar Panajyan, the mother and child/reproductive health/family planning advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) HS-STAR Project. “Anecdotally, we had been made aware of the problem,” she told the Armenian Weekly, but sound scientific data to confirm the widespread stories had been lacking. Now, the issue was staring the country squarely in the eye.

Panajyan believes a long-term strategy needs to be adopted, a solution that takes into account Armenia’s societal and family norms, and aspirations.

Abortions have decreased in Armenia, according to Armenia’s Demographic and Health Survey (ADHS). The 2010 abortion rate in Armenia was 0.8 abortions per woman. That number was 1.8 and 2.6 in 2005 and 2000, respectively. On the other hand, the 2010 fertility rate in Armenia was 1.7 births per woman, which is below the needed level of fertility to replace the current population (that number should be slightly over 2.0). Therefore, the average number of abortions an Armenian woman will have is about half the number of births she will have, according to the report.

Different uses of contraceptives

The current challenge is to promote alternatives to abortions by increasing the availability and accessibility of counseling that provides women and couples with modern family-planning information. Perhaps the task is further complicated by decades of Soviet propaganda against modern contraceptives such as the birth control pill.

Condoms were not produced in sufficient quantity in the Soviet Union, and their quality was poor. “It was the first focus group that I conducted on this issue in 1995. The women would discuss how the only thing condoms were good for was in peeling potatoes. [They would use them] like a latex glove in the kitchen,” said Hekimian. Although their quality has significantly improved, condoms today remain too costly for most Armenian families. Another form of contraceptive, the Intrauterine Device (IUD), was produced and used in the Soviet Union, and continues to be recommended today.

Approximately 27 percent of married women relied on modern methods of contraception in 2010, according to the ADHS data. A slightly higher number, about 28 percent, opted for traditional methods, such as periodic abstinence, withdrawal, and “folk methods.” Although the use of all forms of contraception has decreased since 2000, the use of modern methods has increased from 20-22 percent to 27 percent. Condom use in particular rose from 7 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010.

Raising awareness

In January 2010, USAID initiated a one-year maternal and child health (MCH) improvement project in Armenia known as NOVA 2. The project introduced family-planning counseling to 24 healthcare facilities in five regions in southern Armenia. The result was a noticeable decrease in abortions.

Similarly, UNFPA helped create 75 family-planning units in Armenia offering free counseling and modern contraceptives to the public. Panajyan says USAID’s current HS-STAR Project is creating clinical practice guidelines that Armenia’s Ministry of Health will promote, along with counseling, for use by Armenia’s healthcare professionals.

“This is the first time I’m hearing on all stakeholder levels an interest in actually measuring and maybe perhaps giving bonuses to physicians who carry out this counseling effectively. It’s happening at the ministerial level, which I think is really great work,” said Hekimian.

The real trial will be in the funding and enforcement of such initiatives on a national platform.

Panajyan believes it is too early to predict what the future holds, and whether Armenia will have a female deficit.

“Concerned by the problem, UNFPA Armenia supported a survey to understand the reasons behind and the magnitude of the phenomenon,” said Hayrapetyan, adding that the survey results will be available in December 2011.

A mother of three boys, Panajyan says she was overjoyed with her third pregnancy. Her greatest wish was for a healthy child, no matter the sex. “The issue itself—the discriminative approach at birth where each child does not have an equal right to birth and life—should be considered,” she said. “I’m not saying that prohibitive laws should be approved and enforced, but something should be targeted—at least on a societal level—to increase the public’s awareness of the issue.”


“There was a recent tragic case, where a family from a remote region—a father, a pregnant mother, and two daughters—drove to Yerevan for the mother to receive an ultrasound test to find out the sex of the fetus. As the father revealed later, they had decided to get an abortion if it was a girl. But on their way to Yerevan, the family had a car accident, and one of their daughters was killed,” said Hayrapetyan. “That completely changed their lives, and their view on sex selective abortions.”

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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  1. “Abortion is an official genocide” 
    “Killing many cells in one being…is a genocide”
    “To choose the Sex is a criminal act”
    ” Shame who perform it 
    We are a small nation
    Give then to adoption to an Armenian family
    Why to kill
    Our Artful Nation…
    Awake and Feel
    Don’t commit more crimes
    You… faithless women…! 


  2.  Please this is modified one more accurate…
    The Baby Doom: Selective Abortion in Armenia

    Dear Nanore…
    We like your soulful articles…
    You’re ‘A Real Lady’ 
    Born for Humanity
    This is very important issue…
    That sincerly…You have lanced with your honest pen…
    To save our Armenian Artful Race…

    See if…Steve Job’s mother aborted her son
    We would never had all the new
    Technological advancment of the Internet 
    That the world enjoys…every second of it.
    Take a lesson…
    I wonder is there such mentalities
    In our clever Armenian brain cells…?
    Armenians are ‘A Faithful Race’
    How can they commit such a suicide…!

    Me…I am a girl…
    Born…Female with XX chromosomes
    and the third girl…in my family 
    I wonder…should my mother aborted me…
    If she lived in this century…?

    My mother wanted ‘A Girl’
    She prayed for the Virgin Mary
    To have a girl…To call her Sylva
    To be poetess like Silva Kabutikyan… 

    And here ‘I Am’ 
    Writing to you
    To our dear Armenian Mothers
    To tell them “Awake”…
    Don’t abort any cell…
    Any soul from your body
    All are very precious fro our community…
    To stay…breathe …seed…
    After we lost so many Lives… 
    Never abort…Even Thee was a handicap…

    I am a Mother 
    A Pediatrician
    A Poetess 
    And just recently…A Grandmother
    My grandson name is Arthur…I call him Artoon-Hani
    And my dear daughter-in-law, Lilit…
    Who is Armenian, from Real Armenia 
    Wanted a girl…to give her my name…
    I hope next baby will be…To cuddle her…If I’m still alive…!
    Dear Armenian Mother
    Proceed with your pregnancy… 
    Please…Don’t obey any of illiterate scavengers 
    Who thinks… ‘Abortion is a fun’…
    Let your daughter carry her ‘Father’s Surname’ 
    Many do…I have done the same…

    If you abort…
    You will end up…melancholic insane
    Remembering your ‘Lost Baby’… 
    Till you depart…from this harsh land…

    This is my ‘last advice’ 
    Before…away…I sigh..
    Remember…every word I said,
    Awake…Use your Astrocytes…
    Don’t leave inside your ‘Inviolate Womb’  
    To be carved by a criminal’s knife…
    Who will enjoy few cents and
    You will end with injured heart…depressed…!
    You will always feel that you committed 
    ‘A Crime’—‘The Crime’
    If you think you are A Real Christian…
    And you hang a gold cross not only on your chest
    But deep in the ‘Core of your Heart’
    Ask yourself, “How can I committ such a crime…?”

    At the end to pen…
    “We want everyone to recognize our genocide, 
    But we…with our hands, committing the same act.

    November 24, 2011

  3. Armenian church is too busy releasing its villas, restaurants and football fields from tax…
    Also, it’s busy with fighting other religions and freedom of speech. So much for “moral authority”. 
    Oh, hello, Sylva. Still trolling treads, I see. 

  4. Bayander is very unethical guy 
    He will harm this site
    He doesn’t like Armenians…
    He speaks against any Armenian who is honest…


  5. Dear sylva-MD-Poetry
    Its always are the Christians who start judging other people i don’t understand why don’t you read the only book you have carefully and start act like it. and DO not never judge the women who do the abortion, its a small % of them who done it because of the sex of a child, when they know they cant keep the child and he/she is gonna grew up is a worst conditions, its their choice. try to go there and help as many as you can except writing the bad and fake nationalist poetry. and PLEASE dont compare Genocide with this.

  6. Aren,

    Many thanks for your letter… i do appreciate your opinion
    but do you know how many females die from abortion…?
    please open any site and read the complications of abortion …
    specially in a state like Armenia…
    Even if few died it is a death…
    I’m no longer interested in medicine like before…getting old…
    There was a study few years ago …I need to search in PUBMED…in USA 
    Mothers who aborted diagnosed Dawn babies they regret
    some they could not have more babies…

    Psychology of selfless…dedicated mothers are very complicated 
    males can’t understand…
    and they will never understand…
    because they are males …
    have different physiology …
    different psychology…

    I love Arabs mothers when they say, 
    Every child brings his luck…
    Which is very true


  7. This article is shocking to me in so many different ways. That is incredibly sad in the last story “That completely changed their lives, and their view on sex selective abortions.” But not on abortion in general? The implication of that statement is that they realized more fully the value of human life, but did not realize that all abortion destroys life. Is it only wrong to kill human persons if done selectively or unequally?
    As sad as the soviet era policies are to look back on, more needs to be done to remedy the damage. Our ancestors must be turning in their graves (or lack thereof) to know that our own society is continuing what the Ottomans government started. To put it into perspective, with a fertility rate of 1.7 the population will decrease by one third in a single generation (without accounting for other factors)! Is this not alarming to anyone else? Will Armenia sacrifice its future to play-act at being a European nation when they are practically collapsing because of their dwindling workforces’ inability to support their elderly dependents?

  8.  “The issue itself—the discriminative approach at birth where each child does not have an equal right to birth and life—should be considered,” 

    Right!  What does it say about a society when the value of the individual person changes depending on its gender or ability to generate a cash flow in the future?  No one’s life is sacred when anyone among us can be deemed “disposable.”  The inherent value of each of us is diminished.  It is important to consider the implications of this for the nation.

    Also, Sylva is right.  For some women (not all), who elect to have abortions (for any reason) there are long lasting psychological consequences.  This has been studied by numerous researchers and described by some as resembling post-traumatic stress syndrome.

    To point this out to women who are contemplating having abortion is not necessarily critical.  It can be seen as supportive.  Many people simply view abortion as a logical solution to a problem, but for some women, depending on their psychological make-up, having an abortion can have devastating consequences.  Women have a right to know that for some women, it is far from being an innocuous event as presented by some segments of society.

  9. I think the church needs to stay out of this issue because as we’ve seen in the US, the only thing religion does on this issue is stifle freedom.  What should be done in my opinion is get Planned Parenthood to partner with USAID and open similar clinics in Hayastan.  Planned parenthood in no way encourages abortions and it provides women with facts about birth control and abortion. PLanned Parenthood could also raise the public awareness about birth control to help prevent women from getting pregnant in the first place. We have many organizations here in the US that have been dealing with these issues for such a long time, and we wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel. If we could connect the groups in the US with the healthcare providers in Hayastan we could see significant strides. 

  10. Hayaser …
    Many thanks for your supporting letter …I enjoyed and read it many times…
    And thanks for Nanore once again…to bring this subject…
    This subject is very important for every female…Not only for Armenian females…
    I hope every Armenian girl to become a mother…
    Motherhood is the most beautiful episode in female’s life…
    I pray…I can see Armenian females are getting difficult…
    I do contact many females…Beautiful, Educated, Talented…
    Most are unmarried…I am shocked…

    I ASK EVERY MOTHER ON THIS SITE…to contribute …
    To write even few words so our males can understand…



  11. In the past 20 years, abortion rates have skyrocketed in Armenia, as birth rates have plummeted. Selective abortion based on gender is an innovation of capitalism, as anyone who had been following the practice in India and capitalist China can attest. During Soviet times, children, including girls, were cherished, fed and educated.  Twenty years have passed since the end of the Soviet era, and yet some people continue to blame new disasters that capitalism has created for Armenia on a “legacy” mysteriously inherited from the past. (Somehow, this intransigent “legacy” never goes back any further that the day that Armenia became a part of the Soviet Union.) The demographic facts are a matter of record.  People are getting tired of this way of talking, this way of ignoring the disaster that capitalist gangsters in Yerevan and their imperialist masters have foisted onto Armenia.   

  12. Search for an Orphan
    In Any Soil You Live
    Give some love 
    Don’t Leave
    Even a Small One 
    Better than None
    Who has the heart 
    To love every child 
    A child… 
    Who defined as an orphan
    The mother is there 
    The father is there 
    Both have no soul 
    For their child to care,
    Thy is an orphan 
    Feeding playing alone 
    Who can give…love 
    Gift some happy breaths?
    Love can’t fall like the rain 
    Can’t fall like manna-rice.
    Should arrive from spirits  
    Need someone to feel. 
    Can you be that one…?
    Feel happy to care…

    January 7, 2010
    This poem represent a lady Tiga (Helen) Cullinan, My Professor’s wife Tim R. Cullinan
    We are still friends although He rested away. 
    She adopted a mixed child (Black-English) as her mother-in-law was volantering  for those children…To finsd a home, in spite having four kids of her own.
    Her neighbor told her, first buy shoes for your children and later care for another one!
    She gave love and still giving to everyone and her 19 grandchildren.
    She has a big Heart…Not everone Has…

  13. This is a sickening, disgusting, evil disaster. The Armenian people must rally against abortion if we hope to keep our moral dignity or national strength. The time is now. Armenia cannot wait.

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