Legacy of Romania's contraception ban lives on

 

Attitudes to contraception have changed, although Romania still lives with the memory of Ceausescu's abortion ban. Daniel McLaughlinreports

For audiences of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the contrast with the glitz and glamour of the sun-kissed Cote d'Azur could not have been more stark.

Cristian Mungiu won the prestigious Palme d'Or for his searing tale of a woman's desperate search for a backstreet abortion in the Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator who in 1966 banned abortion - and all other forms of contraception - in a bid to boost his country's population.

Women who broke the law could be jailed for up for two years, and doctors who performed abortions could be thrown in prison for longer. Women were subjected to mandatory gynaecological examinations at work, and those found to be pregnant were monitored for the term by the dreaded Securitate, Ceausescu's secret police, to make sure they kept the child.

Securitate agents would spy on doctors and even examine still-born children to make sure they had not been illegally aborted.

"Out of desperation, women would resort to insane methods," Dr Elena Borza told the Inter Press news agency in Romania recently. "They would use salt, detergent, or any other substance which they thought could help them get rid of the baby."

The result was over 100,000 unwanted children being dumped in Romania's decrepit orphanages, the death of more than 10,000 women during or after illegal terminations, and hundreds of thousands more left infertile by the crude methods of clandestine abortion.

Romanians overthrew and executed Ceausescu in December 1989, and the new government immediately scrapped his infamous Decree 770 and legalised abortion.

But the lingering legacy of Ceausescu's infamous law was apparent in the results of recent studies by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Soros Foundation.

Both conducted surveys that showed half of Romanian women had had at least one abortion. The studies revealed that 28 per cent of women had undergone one abortion, 32 per cent had had two abortions, and 26 per cent had had between three and five terminations.

The UNDP report showed that 12 per cent of respondents had had more than five abortions, while the Soros study claimed 15 per cent of women had undergone that many.

"That rate is much, much higher than in western European nations, and I would expect it to be much higher than Catholic countries in eastern Europe, like Poland and Hungary," said Ovidiu Voicu, a sociologist who was project manager for the Soros Foundation study.

"In general though, the communist countries were opposed to abortion and contraception because they wanted a high birth rate to boost economic production. Even among communist leaders, however, Ceausescu was the most radical."

The UNDP study found that most of the women who had abortions were over 35, and had therefore been of child-bearing age under Ceausescu. The report also said most of them did not have a high level of education, and so had less information about contraception.

The habits of younger Romanians were also striking, however. The UNDP revealed that 34 per cent of women aged between 25-34 years of age - the youngest of whom were only seven years old when Ceausescu was toppled - had had at least one abortion.

"It is clear that, especially in high school, education for sexual life is missing or incomplete, offering only anatomical information and nothing about behaviour," said Voicu.

The UNDP also found that 30 per cent of Romanians aged between 18-24 did not use any form of contraception, while the Soros Foundation discovered that 20 per cent of its respondents could not name any birth-control method. Of them, three-quarters were over 45 years of age, suggesting that Ceausescu's ban on contraception did keep many women in the dark and that, while young Romanians do know about birth control techniques, almost a third choose to ignore them.

After 1989, and the demise of Ceausescu and the legalisation of abortion, medical workers in Romania soon realised that the country's women were more likely than those in other countries to seek terminations, because they were less likely than their foreign peers to trust contraception.

This mistrust was, again, a legacy of the Ceausescu years, when his propaganda machine sought to convince Romanians that contraceptives were unreliable, unhygienic and only used by women of dubious character. That stigma lingers on, and many older Romanians still see abortion as the only really reliable way of avoiding parenthood.

"This is certainly the case with women who lived during Ceausescu's time, but we see that once young people are informed about contraception, they have a positive attitude towards it, because they realise abortion can be dangerous," Voicu adds. He says his report shows that education is vital in encouraging young Romanians to use contraception, rather than relying on abortion - legal or otherwise - as older generations did.

Romania still has the highest rate of infant mortality and the lowest life expectancy in the EU.