Scales of Justice Weigh In at a Baby's Breath

One of the most revered figures of the Russian Empire's golden age in the late 18th century was, and still is, Mikhail Lomonosov. He was a peasant's son who walked to Moscow and went on to become a great universal scientist and scholar of his time, recording major discoveries in physics and chemistry, as well as breaking new ground in poetry and geography.

Lomonosov's least known achievement, however, is his role in developing child care and obstetrics in Russia in the 1760s. In 1761, Lomonosov, who was regarded here as being on a par with Western greats like Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, wrote a letter to Catherine the Great's favorite, the influential Count Shuvalov, titled "On the Preservation and Proliferation of the Russian People." In his thesis, he insisted that Russia's foremost security task was to have as many babies as possible because that is how you have "traders, soldiers and peasants to keep a nation's might and wealth growing."

Lomonosov's appeal resulted in a noticeable improvement in maternity services. His appeal is worth remembering today, especially because the nation shrinks from year to year with nobody really taking much notice.

Russian mothers keep telling horror stories, most recently to Moskovsky Komsomolets, of their underweight babies being discarded as stillbirths even when their hearts are still beating. This fact was confirmed by well-known obstetricians such as Vyacheslav Tabolin, chief of the pediatric department at the Moscow Medical University, who says that the government is doing nothing to save underweight babies.

According to Tabolin, it was only in June 1992 that President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree to the effect that all babies of 500 grams and over should be considered live births. Before that, only the ones over 1 kilogram were considered to be alive. Tabolin, in a recent interview, cited appalling cases where mothers were left seeing their underweight babies screeching while law-abiding doctors left the baby on the window sill until he cried himself to death.

But the presidential decree, while reducing the live weight of a baby by 1/2 kilogram, which is closer to international standards, has left Russian doctors gasping. There is no provision for the funding needed to acquire the equipment, oxygen masks, heaters and intensive care units needed for nourishing the small-size babies. Tabolin said some doctors have even tried to cope by using old telephone cables to feed the underweight babies.

Russia is facing a demographic crisis right now with a constantly falling birth rate, owing both to the fact that couples are worried about the future and that Russian women are increasingly wary of the whole business of childbirth. Frankly, is it any wonder?