Illegal Abortion: Lessons from Romania
by H. Bradford
I recently read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity. In the past, I had read parts of the book, drawing from it for my thesis on the topic of abortion in formerly communist countries. In preparation for my upcoming short vacation to Romania, I wanted to read some books about Romanian topics, so I reconnected with the book for that purpose. Reflecting upon the book, there are some lessons that can be drawn from Romania’s abortion experience. Abortion access has been relentlessly attacked and restricted since its legalization in 1973 and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will certainly be hostile to Roe v. Wade. While the spectre of inaccessible, if not illegal, abortion has haunted America for decades, there is fearful anticipation among activists that a new era of attacks on reproductive rights is upon us. Therefore, Kligman’s book is timely for anyone looking to learn from the historical horrors of illegal abortion.
To provide some context, in 1966 abortion was made illegal in Romania by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Decree 770 made abortion illegal in most cases, spare some medical conditions, age thresholds (40 or 45 depending upon the age), rape, incest, fetal deformity, or having already raised a certain number of children (4-5 depending on the year). Abortion remained illegal until the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989. During this time period, contraceptives were unavailable in Romania, women were subjected to regular mandatory gynecological exams to monitor pregnancies/abortions/reproductive health, abortion seekers and providers were imprisoned, childless people were fined, homosexuality and adultery was criminalized, and divorce was made difficult to obtain. The state mobilized propaganda, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system towards enforced reproduction in the interest of demographic goals. According to Kligman’s book, this reproductive dystopia was the inspiration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Although the United States is very different from communist Romania in the 1960s-80s, some important lessons can be drawn from these nightmarish decades.
1.Abortion Does Not End With Illegality:
Despite Romanian’s draconian laws and lack of access to birth control, abortion did not end. Women either found legal channels, such as obtaining an abortion for medical purposes (as some conditions allowed for abortion) or faking a miscarriage or illegal channels, such as willing doctors or underground providers. Most often it was through illegal channels. The option of travel was not available to most Romanian women, but for a privileged minority this was also a means to obtain an abortion. One way or another, women continued to seek abortions. Of course, the ability to seek an abortion was largely dependent upon privilege. Women who knew doctors, had more social networks, had favorable connections to the police or state, more money, or other resources could more easily circumvent the laws. Thus, the burden of illegal abortion hits the most marginalized populations the hardest. It is the poorest and most estranged from social institutions who were forced to reproduce. For example, Kligman (1998) relayed the story of a peasant woman who was awarded a Medal of Maternal Glory for having 10 children. She used the award ceremony as a platform to beg for an extra bed. While she was celebrated for her large number of children, it may very well been for lack of access to an alternative and certainly, this state celebrated choice was not supported by accompanying material resources.
Within the United States, if abortion was made illegal, abortion seekers would continue to have access to it. Women with careers, credit cards, no criminal histories, U.S. passports, and paid vacation time could access abortion in other countries if it was made illegal here. Generally, those with resources such as money and vehicles could travel to states where abortion laws were less restrictive. Those with social networks or living in urban areas, might have access to underground illegal abortion services. Thus, once again, abortion would not disappear, though the limited access would have the greatest impact on poor women, women of color, rural women, women with criminal histories, immigrant women, and those whose access is already severely limited by lack of abortion access and funding. The Anti-abortion movement is inherently a war against the most oppressed members of society. While illegal abortion would certainly be a challenge to educated, “middle class”, mobile, white women, the impact would be deeper felt by those who face multiple oppressions.
The illegality of abortion in Romania drove women to seek abortions. Some abortions were performed by doctors looking to supplement their modest incomes and some were performed by those who genuinely wanted to help women. These abortions were made unsafe by the secretive conditions that illegal abortion created. Doctors had to hide their tools, work quickly, and perform abortions in private residences. Others were self-induced or performed by non-professionals. About half of these illegal abortions were performed without harm to the woman. As for the rest, women often found themselves suffering complications from the herbs, plants, toxins, or objects used to perform the abortion. This created the hard choice between seeking medical help and risking criminal charges or the possibility of death. Around 60% of women who went to the hospital for pregnancy complications had sought illegal abortion. In all, there was an average of 341 deaths per year from abortion complications while abortion was illegal in Romania. Illegal abortion is the death sentence for some women.
Maternal death can also be expected if abortion were to be made illegal in the United States. There are some key improvements in the United States compared to Romania. For one, abortion medicine is more advanced. In Romania, abortions were only performed by curettage, as vacuum aspiration was unavailable before 1989. Mifepristone had not yet been invented, so medical abortion was also unavailable (misoprostol the other drug used to induce abortion had been invented but would not have been available in Romania). The lack of abortion technology made abortion less safe in Romania than if abortion became illegal in the United States. Nevertheless, if abortion were illegal in the United States, abortion seekers and providers would still face tough choices if complications arose. Because doctors in the United States are better paid than those in Romania and their education comes at a steep cost, fewer might be incentivized by earning extra money than those in communist Romania were. This may put women in the hands of those who have less access to abortion medicine/knowledge. Illegality means less regulation, oversight, uniformity, accreditation, sanitary conditions, and more dangers. This isn’t to argue that only medical professionals are capable of providing safe abortion. There were certainly Romanian women who obtained safe abortions from non-medical providers whose folk knowledge of plants and good fortune were enough to end a pregnancy. However, illegal abortion creates more unknown variables that can contribute to a lack of safety.
In Romania, both women and doctors were imprisoned for seeking/performing abortions. Time in prison was generally one to three years. However, some repeat offenders found themselves in prison for longer. Even those who facilitated abortion were imprisoned, such as the girlfriend of a doctor who was imprisoned for one year without a change of clothes. She was believed to have hosted the abortion in her apartment. Doctors who performed illegal abortions could lose their medical license, or at the very least, had to work in another area of medicine.
If the anti-abortion movement in the United States believes that abortion is murder, then it follows that abortion must carry with it some sort of penalty. In the U.S. the penalty for murder is often life imprisonment and sometimes capital punishment. Those who argue that abortion is murder rarely argue for the same punishment as murder, which is odd, as it indicates to me that they do not believe it is actually murder or that if it is murder, it is a different kind of murder. Why is it different? And, if it is different, it concedes that a fetus is not the same as a born human, for which the punishment is the harshest among all crimes. But, supposing that abortion is made illegal but the punishment is more minor, such as a few years in prison. The United States has the largest prison population in the world. 22% of all of the prisoners in the world are in the United States. Illegal abortion could potentially add many people to our prison system, as one in three women have had an abortion. What would society be like if one in three women were imprisoned? The United States has 30% of the world’s female prison population. African Americans make up 40% of the United States prison population, despite the fact that they are 13% of the general population. Criminalizing abortion, like criminalizing anything in this country, disproportionately impacts people of color.
One outcome of illegal abortion in Romania was unwanted children. After all, not all women could successfully access illegal abortion. Many of these children found themselves on the streets or were put into overcrowded, underfunded orphanages. Because of unsanitary medical practices and lack of transparency/policy regarding HIV, some of these orphans contracted HIV. After the collapse of communism in Romania, the Western Media broadcasted the images of underweight, despondent, dirty, neglected children in Romanian orphanages, revealing and perhaps making a spectacle of the horror of their abuse. Romanian society failed to care for the children that women were forced to birth. I doubt the United States would do much better.
Romanian society had some advantages over the United States when it comes to the care of children. In Romania, retirement age was 57 for women (and 55 upon request). For men, it was 62 or 60 upon request. Therefore, unwanted children or children that parents simply could not care for, could be sent to retired grandparents or other relatives. In the United States, full Social Security benefits begin at 66, but many people feel that they can no longer retire. The pool of retirees who can provide care work for children is smaller as the economy and lack of pension benefits at jobs forces U.S. workers into the job market longer. Romania also offered 112 days of paid maternity leave, a birth bonus, and a 10% stipend for their second child (more for additional children). While these government funds were not sufficient to defray the actual cost of raising a child, at least the government made some effort to provide for families. The United States does not offer free daycare, paid maternity leave, or any additional funds to support families. In this sense, our country is profoundly unequipped to support mothers and children. There are programs for needy families, such as MFIP and food stamps, but only the poorest can access these and this does not resolve problems such as affordable daycare and paid leave, which all working parents need.
Ideology of Gender Oppression:
In the United States, it seems that one of the biggest incubators of the ideology of gender oppression is religion. After all, most anti-abortion groups are religiously affiliated. Because religion has been used to justify homophobia, lack of abortion access, and the oppression of women, it is easy to view religion as the source of gender oppression. However, one lesson from Romania is that religion can be completely absent from public life and the state can still propagate ideologies that justify the oppression of women. Romania, like all communist countries, was an atheist state. Nevertheless, the state created mythologies about nationalism and building communism, in which the role of women was both that of a worker and glorified mother. While the case for illegal abortion is often made on religious grounds in the United States, nationalism, economic prosperity, and even science can be mobilized to oppress women. In Romania, propaganda created a mythology that women were naturally meant to be mothers. That this was what made them the healthiest, happiest, and most productive. Any ideology that states that women are naturally “X” should be a red flag. Women are not naturally anything. Woman is a social category which has divided the world in an unequal gender binary. So, while I write now about women and often discuss women’s rights to abortion, it is important to remember that men and non-binary people also seek abortions. Not all people with uteruses are women. Part of the fight for reproductive rights is the fight to challenge notions of gender or what is natural, since “natural” is a dog whistle for what is expected and enforced. The fight for reproductive rights is not a fight against religion, though some religions are involved in the anti-abortion movement. In a discursive sense, it is also a fight about the very notion of what it means to be a woman. It is a fight against the demographic and economic interests of states, which are invested in the reproduction of workers and soldiers if not the actual upkeep of children.
Culture of Suspicion:
Kligman (1998) noted that Romanian abortion laws created a culture of suspicion. Women were made to have regular gynecological exams. Doctors were mobilized by the state to police the bodies of women. Everyday citizens were recruited by The Securitate to spy on one another. Relationships between couples, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, etc. deteriorated as it was never certain who could be trusted and who could not.
The United States is not the same sort of police state, but because of our political and cultural environment, abortion is still a matter of secrecy and shame. Few people discuss their abortion experience even though abortion is common. If abortion were illegal, this secrecy and shame is likely to increase because of the legal consequence. Therefore, it is important for supporters of abortion to fight the shame. In the arena of discourse, we should never accept that abortion should be rare, that it is shameful, regrettable, or that no one is pro-abortion. I am pro-abortion. If abortion is medicine, then I am as much for abortion as I am for dental treatment, eye exams, cancer treatment, or any other form of medicine. Abortion can be life saving. Abortion is sometimes freedom from poverty or abusive relationships. Like anything, it can be a positive, negative, or neutral experience based upon social and personal circumstances.
Abortion and Abuse
Kligman (1998) did not give as much attention to this topic as it deserves, perhaps because of lack of research in this area. However, she mentioned that in Romania, divorce was hard to obtain and abuse was considered a personal/family matter. Even if a woman sought to escape an abusive situation, survival on a single income and the ability to obtain housing would have been nil. She also wrote that men really did not take responsibility for pregnancy prevention and that it was up to women to obtain an abortion or deal with the consequences of pregnancy. State health propaganda suggested that couples should have sex several times a week. The state fostered a society wherein domestic violence was inescapable by virtue of social norms, lack of resources, enforced pregnancy, and state sanctioned male entitlement to sex.
If abortion were illegal in the United States, victims of domestic violence would similarly find themselves forced to have the children of their abuser. Due to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence is not inevitably viewed as a personal or family matter but a problem related to patriarchy and the exertion of power. Advocates have pushed back against this narrative. Shelters, community responses involving education police and social services, and laws that protect victims from such things as eviction or job loss are some of the victories of the feminist movement which Romanian society did not have. However, illegal abortion would still have an impact on victims/survivors as it would force them to have the children of their abuser and through this connection continue to have to deal with them in courts (for child support, custody, visitation) and in life (if the abuser does have partial custody, visitation). Enforced pregnancy (through rape or sabotage or denial of birth control) is one of many ways that abusers exert control over victims. Illegal abortion is essentially the state’s sanction of sexual abuse.
U.S. Foreign Policy- Exporting Anti-Abortion
One final lesson from Romania is that Western countries were either indifferent or supportive of Ceausescu’s abortion policies. Nixon visited Romania in the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter hosted a visit of Ceausescu in 1978, and the United States looked at Romania as a potential ally due to its independence from the Soviet Union, relations with Israel, and willingness to engage in trade agreements with the west. The suffering of the Romanian people and the restrictive abortion laws mattered very little to the two ruling parties of the United States. This is because ultimately, U.S. economic and political interests as an imperialist power supersede principled concerns about the rights of women. Lip service may be given to these concerns from time to time, but these concerns meet their horizon where US hegemony is challenged.
Our country’s hostility towards abortion has a global impact. One example is the Global Gag rule, which began with Reagan and has been squarely supported by Republicans since. Basically, it means that oversees organizations which receive U.S. aid cannot provide or promote abortion services. I expect that if abortion became illegal in the United States, we would empower and expand restrictions elsewhere. In terms of abortion, the worst offenders, of course, are Republicans, but at the heart of the issue is a shared, underlying view that the United States is exceptional, correct, important, and deserves a disproportionate place in shaping the history of the world and lives of the people of other countries. The United States is not exceptional, or it is only exceptional in its atrocities, war mongering, genocide, racism, mass incarceration, and capacity for immiserating the world. I believe that if abortion became illegal in the United States, the people of the world would help the oppressed women here. In return, it is our duty to demolish U.S. power abroad.
Illegal abortion seems like a nightmare, but in this nightmarish lens, it is always an Other. It is an exotic, Eastern, communist dystopia that is distant from the United States on account of time, place, and political/economic system. But, the challenges faced by Romanians are some of the same faced in the United States before abortion was illegal and which are faced today where abortion has not yet been legalized. In Romania, the people rose up and killed their dictators. In the United States, social movements also tirelessly worked to legalize abortion and contraceptives. While women might not have the power to “shut things down” when it comes to reproduction (to quote Todd Akin famous rape statement) there is always the power to shut society down through protest, strikes, and civil disobedience. As challenging as it is, it is our best and only hope in rolling back the tide of attacks against reproductive rights.