CONTENT WARNINGS: ABORTION, MATERNAL DEATH
Following the overthrow of Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, harrowing footage of overflowing state-run institutions for abandoned children shook the world. These frightened and severely neglected children were the product of a society who were forced to live with harsh pro-natalist policies.
Romania’s suppression of abortion rights under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s leadership is arguably one of the most extreme case studies in the consequences of redefining population growth to a patriotic obligation. In current political debates concerning reproduction, references to the failures of these policies are still frequently drawn upon.
The first formal action of the replacement leadership following the overthrow of Ceaușescu, was to revoke Decree 770 – the law which restricted birth-control and abortion. From 1966 until Ceaușescu’s execution on 25 December 1989, Romanian women were required under this law to fulfil their assigned duty.
It was decreed that ‘growth of an increased number of children, and the formation of healthy and robust generations profoundly devoted to the cause of socialism’.
To fully understand why Decree 770 was established, you need to be aware of what made Romania distinct from other Eastern Bloc states, this being Ceaușescu’s obsession with achieving state-autonomy. Although Romania was a socialist nation, Ceaușescu had the approval of Western leaders because he had openly severed ties from the Soviet Union.
For Ceaușescu, rapid population growth was seen as necessary for strengthening Romania’s national presence. Pro-natalist policies were an investment in creating a future workforce for mass industrialisation plans. Additionally, the decline in Romania’s birth-rate following World War II was incorrectly linked to legalising abortion in 1957.
Decree 770 was introduced on 1 October 1966 – almost a decade after abortion had been legalised in Romania. Under this policy, women under the age of 45 could only be considered for a legal abortion under the following circumstances:
· If she had already given birth and raised four children:
· The pregnancy was the result of rape or incest:
· The pregnant woman had a serious physical or psychological disability:
· One parent suffered from a serious hereditary illness: or
· The pregnancy endangered the woman’s life and no other alternative was possible.
In these scenarios, approval for an abortion would then need to be granted by a medical committee. Moreover, this decree forbade any contraception which had not been manufactured in Romania, making birth-control virtually inaccessible.
This stark change to legislation was announced the next day in Romania’s official newspaper, Scinteia. The Communist Party of Romania justified their decision on the first page with a statement:
‘The particular social danger resulting from abortion and from its grave medical, demographic, and social consequences makes it necessary to punish all persons associated with effecting an abortion: the instigators, mediators and others involved in arranging an abortion as well as the participants themselves.’
Comparable to other Eastern Bloc states, a fear of expressing any discontent was endemic within Romanian society due to the intense level of surveillance citizens were under. One could not openly challenge this law, and within two years of its formation the total fertility rate grew from 1.9 children per woman, to 3.7. This increase, however, was not long-lasting as women began to seek illegal abortion. When the birth rate reverted back to its original figure, Decree 770 was modified to be more stringent, with divorce becoming highly restricted and other policies introduced. These included a monthly tax for all childless people twenty-five years or older regardless of marital status and mandatory monthly gynaecological examinations for every woman of a child-rearing age, in order to monitor for signs of pregnancy.
“When the state usurps the private, the body is undressed in public” said a Romanian woman in Gail Kligman’s book The Politics of Duplicity, summing up her feelings towards the political focus on family growth during this period.
The state had not only assigned women a compulsory role, it had intruded on that which is most intimate and personal. What’s more, Ceaușescu’s extravagant spending on building The House of the People, an extravagant palace intended to declare the victory of socialism, mixed with his goal to immediately repay all of Romania’s international debt, made his expectations of women to raise large families even more unrealistic. Throughout the ‘80s, nation-wide rationing of food and heating was in place, and the majority of the population were of low socio-economic status.
Although financial incentives were offered to families who had more children, these could not sufficiently cover the costs of raising a child. As a consequence, countless women lost their lives receiving illegal abortions. By 1989, Romania had the highest maternal mortality rate in Europe with 159 deaths for every 100,000 live births.
However, the most distressing consequence of the pro-natalist policies was revealed following the death of Ceaușescu. In 1990, international journalists were permitted into Romania, and haunting footage began to emerge throughout the world of dirty and crammed institutions, never meant to be seen by the public. An estimated 100,000 abandoned children were living in appalling conditions in state-run orphanages. Starving, naked and neglected, they were forced to live in their own waste. The child-to-caregiver ratios ranged from 10:1 for infants, to as a high as 20:1 for children over three, leaving these children severely deprived of any affection.
Romanian citizens were oblivious to the plight of their abandoned children as the government had given the impression, through propaganda films, that the state system offered good care and education. Doctors were also known to encourage mothers to give their child to the orphanage if she was poor, if the child was fatherless or if the child had a disability.
This footage triggered a public outcry. Some of these children were lucky enough to be adopted, yet immense flaws in Romania’s care of abandoned children remained a legacy from Ceaușescu long after the regime ended.
The 23 years in which Decree 770 was in place remains much more than just a tragic example of the personal being invaded by the political. Its aftermath left countless women needlessly killed or infertile in botched illegal abortion attempts and an institutional system for abandoned children which, despite vast improvements, is far from fixed. But one of the most poignant remnants of Ceaușescu’s regime is the lifelong struggles with severe trauma that the children who were forced to live in cruel conditions continue to face into adulthood.