A total ban - Abortion in Romania 

Article published on May 13, 2016
Article published on May 13, 2016

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Beata Szydlo, the head of the Polish government, recently caught our attention with her proposal of fully banning abortion. The dark hours of illegal abortion in Europe aren't that far behind us: just look at Romania from 1966 to 1989.

Romania, 1966: dictator Nicola Ceaușescu releases Decree 770. It is a ban on abortion, except for women over the age of 45 or who already have four children under their care. It also considerably restricts access to contraception. Behind those measures stands Ceaușescu's great vision of a "New Man": he wanted the Romanian population to grow to 10 million by 1990 - within 24 years. A whole generation was to arise, one that hadn't known anything but state socialism, and a new man was to be created, following the soviet model. Almost overnight, many kindergartens and schools were built.

At first, the experiment seemed to be successful: Decree 770 caused the birth rate to rise from under 2 to more than 3 children per woman within a year - the goal being 4 children per woman. A study published in 2013 exposes the dramatic side effects of that policy: the rate of deaths caused by abortions rose from about 20 per 100,000 in 1966 to a tragic high of 150 per 100,000 in 1982. Three years later, the decree was made even stricter, which caused the mortality rate to sink briefly, before returning to the same level in 1989.

The law was so strictly enforced that authorities even kept a close look on menstruations, in order to interrogate the women who did not become pregnant. Doctors performing abortions received harsh sentences, and many women resorted to the services of amateurs, often with fatal consequences.

Romania, 1989: a bloody revolution strikes. The very generation that was supposed to be the pride and foundation of the country, the children of Decree 770, had Ceaușescu removed from power, arrested and executed. One of the first measures taken by the new social democratic government was to revoke Decree 770 and thus make abortion legal. Women immediately took advantage of it, and the rate of legal abortions skyrocketed from 20 in the first year to over 160 in the second year, before considerably dropping in the third year. To this day, Romania still has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe. Official statistics indicate that there were still 177,6 abortions performed per 1000 women between the ages of 15 and 49 in 1990, and 34 in 2001. In Austria, the number is about 14 abortions per women between 15 and 49.

Over 20 years later

Today, researchers are drawing conclusions from the Romanian case: women who want to have an abortion won't let restrictive laws hold them back. The figures are unequivocal: when states want to control the bodies of pregnant women, it only leads them to seek other ways - illegal and dangerous, if necessary - to claim their right to self-determination. The 2004 documentary film „Children of the decree“ shows this with great clarity, as it exposes Decree 770 and its consequences. It mentions the figure of 11.000 deaths caused by botched abortions.

The problem that Romania faced then is now being faced in Albania, a state where sex-selective abortions are a major concern. Abortion is encouraged as soon as doctors see that the child is a girl, because girls are still perceived as a burden, while boys will ensure the perpetuation of the family and its name. This is an issue that is also still topical in Ireland, where abortion is only allowed in cases where the life of the mother is immediately at risk. Irish women thus choose to go to the UK when they need to have an abortion performed. Official estimates put their number at 4000 to 7000. British clinics offer ample informative literature and advice for the citizens of their conservative neighbor.

It appears clearly that restrictive abortion laws (like the ones promoted by the Polish government or U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump) miss their target, if women's health and wellbeing is the main target. More than ever, the body - especially women's bodies -  is a political battleground. And the first victim of that war is their fundamental right to self-determination and to be the masters of their own bodies.