I Know The Human Cost Of Living Under Strict Abortion Laws

In communist Romania, my aunt died as a result of an illegal, unsafe attempt to end her pregnancy. Having had three myself under new laws, to my mind legal abortion is the indication of a sane society.

Warning: This piece includes graphic descriptions of abortion, which may be triggering for some readers

Donald Trump’s visit to the UK this week was an occasion for people around the country to voice their disagreement and anger with, among other things, worrying developments in the US over women’s rights, and particularly the right to abortion.

Issues regarding this sensitive subject have been getting increasingly heated recently, and with the passing of the bill banning abortion in Alabama there are serious concerns that under Trump regime the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling will be overturned.

I find it symbolic that in exactly 1989, when communism was collapsing all over Eastern Europe – taking with it the damaging restrictions on abortion across the region – the Supreme Court in the US was tightening restrictions so that state clinics could prohibit abortions. In this essay I reflect back on quite what those pre-1989 laws meant in human terms for people living in Eastern Europe, and what this history should teach us about how we regulate society today.

It is almost thirty years now since the fall of communism. At the time I was fifteen-years-old and living in Romania. The reason invoked by the authorities for banning abortion back in 1966 was to increase the birth rate and to protect the idea of the traditional family. Today, the reason most often cited is to protect the life of the unborn child, although ultimately is about control, women’s rights and diverting public attention to this false ‘problem’, while real socio-economical issues remained unaddressed.

For me, as someone who experienced the horrors of the authoritarian state involving itself in decisions regarding procreation and contraception, as well as personal experiences of abortion that I had after the revolution, I can only see the hypocrisy and empty rhetoric behind politicians’ concern regarding abortion in countries such as the US today. If there is something to concern the state anywhere in the world, it should be taking care of children who are already born; something that is far from being the case in a global society marked by wars, poverty, starvation, abuse, discrimination, not to mention the poor way we treat and pay our educators, teachers and childcare staff.

Legal abortion is, to my mind, an indication of a sane society. In communist Romania abortion was illegal. The rationale for this was that legal abortion would encourage promiscuousness and was against the values of the traditional family. It was also related to the fact that Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s communist leader, had an ambition to increase the population of the country. To this end he passed a law in 1966 banning abortion and as a result, for the next 24 years Romania endured a harsh and oppressive ‘pro-life’ regime.

Immediately after the new law had been enforced there was a rise in the number of births. But by 1973 the birth rate had dropped back to an average of 2.4 babies per woman. The reason was illegal abortions. In the absence of any form of contraception, women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies engaged in various kinds of practices which often led either to mutilation or death. The methods included introducing substances that were thought to trigger an abortion into their vagina, carrying weights around until they started to bleed, or having someone perform an amateur abortion procedure on them. In many cases this led to them requiring immediate medical care, and yet the law stipulated that women caught having illegal abortions would be sentenced to jail. In addition, doctors were banned from performing abortions, and also faced prison sentences. Some did of course take this risk and helped women in need. But the environment was such that not only did it threaten many women’s physical health, but it also affected the emotional and psychological wellbeing of doctors and patients alike.

Most people had direct family experience of this in some form or other. In my case, my aunt died as a result of an illegal attempt to end her pregnancy, while a friend’s mother had the foetus removed by scissors and went on to fight years of depression because of this. The total number of women who died because of being forced into taking illegal abortions is not known, because the official causes of death for many were related conditions such as septicaemia or kidney failure.

At the same time, many babies who were born against the wishes of their mothers had either to be referred to adoption (in cases where they were healthy) or institutionalised (in cases where they were suffering from mental or physical impairments). This second option became a death sentence in most cases, as the babies were placed in orphanages where they starved to death, lacking any medical care, let alone love and support.

The way the law was enforced was also a brutalising experience. Women working in factories had the humiliating obligation to submit themselves to a yearly gynaecological exam so that the state could know exactly who was pregnant, and check on anyone who might have recently ended their pregnancies (and would thus face repercussions for flouting the law).

And then there is the trauma of those families who lost their mother because she simply didn’t want to have another baby, such as my aunt. She left behind three small children and a devastated family.

Having been born during the enforcement of the anti-abortion law, I have never known if my parents really wanted to have me, or whether I was just an accident. To launch into speculation over what would have happened if my mother had decided to have an abortion is a futile exercise, more related to philosophy than to reality. But women dying from being denied access to medical care because the government decides they must give birth to a child they don’t want is not philosophy. It is a cruel reality that surely has no place in the modern world.

After Romania became democratic, I had three abortions. In all three cases my decision was based on two factors: firstly, I didn’t feel ready at that time to have a child; and secondly, I didn’t feel the actual fathers were in any way good partners to have a baby with. The first time I didn’t feel any remorse, I just felt relieved. The second time it became the motivation for leaving a toxic relationship. The third time it was emotionally unbearable, and I remember how tough I was with myself for years after that – I felt ashamed and furious because I had to go through that experience yet again instead of simply preventing it.

The core issue is not whether abortion is legal or illegal – the right to medical care in any kind of circumstances should be a non-controversial right for everybody. Instead it is how best to support women in preparing for the decision to have a child, and once they do decide to bring a baby into this world, how best to help them raise the child to become a functional adult who can bring their unique set of skills and contribution to society.

The physical and emotional scars of that time still continue to this day. To end on a positive note, however, in Romania one outstanding contribution of babies born during the enforcement of the anti-abortion laws was that their generation revolted against communism and created the revolution, thus turning a tide in history.

Denisa Popa is a Romanian writer, translator and film producer, based in London