Russian lawmakers were set to debate on Wednesday a bill banning all adoptions by American citizens in retaliation at US human rights legislation, despite fierce opposition by ministers who say the move will rob scores of orphans of the chance of ever having a family.
The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, will vote on the bill in a crucial second reading after the U.S. recently passed a law penalising Russian officials implicated in the prison death of a lawyer.
Russian legislators, in what they said was a tit-for-tat move, swiftly drew up legislation that would ban adoptions of Russian children by US citizens and close down US adoption agencies in Russia.
The bill was named after Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died of heat stroke in 2008 after his adoptive American father forgot him in a car in the summer heat.
Defending the bill, Olga Batalina, a lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, said: "It is rather immoral to shift responsibility for Russian children onto nationals of other countries."
But the pro-Kremlin lawmakers' move has caused a huge outcry in society and an unusual split inside the government.
Ordinary and prominent Russians have drawn up an open letter to parliament, calling on lawmakers to reconsider.
"The passage of this bill puts at risk the lives and health of thousands of Russian children who will not be able to find a family, will be forced to live in very difficult conditions and will not obtain necessary medical treatment," the letter said.
Experts say disabled children often become outcasts in Russia, are denied proper treatment and condemned to a miserable life in state institutions.
Of the 3,400 Russian children adopted by foreign families in 2011, 956 -- nearly a third -- were adopted by US parents, according to official figures. Eighty nine of those adopted by US parents were disabled children.
Senior ministers have also objected, saying it would end up hurting scores of orphans with disabilities, whom Russians are often reluctant to adopt.
Education Minister Dmitry Livanov condemned what he said was an "eye-for-an-eye" logic.
"Our children who could not find adoptive parents in Russia could be hurt," he said on Twitter earlier this week.
"There is a need to react firmly to any atrocities in relation to Russian boys and girls, but banning adoption as an institution is wrong, I believe," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement.
Influential ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin added on Twitter: "I am against the 'Dima Yakovlev law.'... Children have nothing to do with it."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who plans to hold a major news conference on Thursday, has so far remained silent on the hugely controversial issue.
His spokesman however said the Duma's position was understandable.
"Such a tough emotional reaction of Russian parliament members is quite understandable," Dmitry Peskov told Russian television in remarks on Wednesday.
"It is the responsibility of the state, the responsibility of all the branches of the government to protect children from even the smallest danger."
"It goes without saying that the line of the executive branch of the government is more restrained," he added. But Putin "understood" the Duma's position, given the passage in the United States of the "Magnitsky Act," he said, referring to the US legislation.
Russian activists picketed the building of the State Duma ahead of the debate. Some held placards that read: "Deputies, you are worse than terrorists" and "Do not rob our children of a future."
Officers detained around 30 protesters, a police spokesman told AFP.
Last week, US President Barack Obama signed into law the so-called Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials allegedly implicated in the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky was being held in pre-trial detention on fraud charges when he died in 2009 of several untreated conditions.
Prior to his arrest he had claimed to have discovered a major tax fraud covered up by interior ministry officials and testified against them.
The Russian bill is also likely to ban US-financed non-government organisations. Putin said in his state-of-the-nation address that people who received US funding could not be politicians in Russia.