“It was a horrible time,” said a Romanian gynecologist, referring to the period from 1966 to 1990 when abortion and contraception were completely banned under the dictatorship of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
“Women refused to have sexual lives, resulting in family fights and abandonment,” she added. “For a woman, any sexual contact meant only panic and pain.”
As another Romanian who lived through the period put it: “It was impossible to have a normal sexual life because of fear of getting pregnant.”
If the US Republican Party has its way, millions of US women could soon come to know the same fear. Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama and other states have enacted or are proposing outright abortion bans, hoping to bring the issue back before a sympathetic US Supreme Court and overturn the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
In the absence of Roe’s constitutional protection of a woman’s right to have an abortion, the US would become a different society because, as in Ceausescu-era Romania, the government would police its members’ most personal choices.
It was not only women who suffered from the Ceausescu regime’s attacks on their bodily integrity. Far from strengthening the family, Romania’s draconian “pro-life” policies poisoned heterosexual intimacy, strained marriages and weakened social trust.
Monthly gynecological exams brought the state inside women’s uteruses and, by extension, into the bedroom. State surveillance of sexual activity resembled that of a farmer breeding livestock.
With provisions prohibiting women from going out of state for an abortion, or from using certain contraceptive methods (such as intrauterine devices), much of the new US legislation, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would expose women to a similar enforcement regime.
After the Ceausescu regime fell in December 1989, one of the interim Romanian government’s first moves was to decriminalize abortion. While debates about many aspects of the communist legacy soon erupted, few Romanians had any doubt that forcing women to have babies that they did not want had been disastrous for the country.
Even after three decades under the ban, Romania’s birth rate had not increased. Instead, Romanian women had undergone nearly 7.3 million back-alley abortions — an average of three apiece — from 1967 to 1989. At least 15,000 women died as a result of complications and untreated side effects. Romania’s infant mortality rate during this period was the highest in Europe, and anywhere from two to 59 times higher than that of other countries.
Although most Eastern bloc countries expanded women’s reproductive freedoms after Stalin’s death in 1953, by the late 1960s, communist leaders began to worry that declining birth rates would lead to future labor shortages.
However, while other East European countries addressed the issue through longer paid maternity leaves and higher childcare benefits, the Romanian government took a different path.
Prior to 1966, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world, but desperate for population growth, Ceausescu issued Decree 770, essentially nationalizing Romanian women’s wombs.
Both abortion and contraception were criminalized for all women younger than 45 who had not given birth to at least four children (later increased to five). The only exceptions were for rape and incest, high-risk pregnancies and cases in which the fetus could contract a hereditary disease from either parent.
The law was strictly enforced. The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, registered suspected pregnancies and kept tabs on women until the birth of the child. It was the kind of natalist authoritarianism that US “pro-life” advocates have long dreamed of.
With challenges to Roe looming on the horizon, and with many US states having already denied access to abortion facilities and reproductive health services through other means, Romania’s experience shows what happens when women suddenly lose the right to control their own bodies. Without reproductive freedom, heterosexual sex turns into a game of “Russian roulette” for women, because they quite literally bear the consequences of any liaison. Alabama’s new law goes further than Ceausescu’s Romania, by eliminating even the exception for rape or incest.
Abortion opponents claim that banning it would promote marriage, strengthen families and restore traditional gender roles, but the Romanian case shows that a more likely scenario is a rapid increase in maternal mortality, an explosion of unwanted children and orphans, and a “sex recession,” as wives choose to avoid intimacy with their husbands altogether.
As in Romania, the state’s violent intrusion into the private sphere will upset the lives of men and women alike. The US can look forward to a future of bad sex and wrecked relationships.
It is time to face facts. A century of evidence from around the world shows that coercive reproduction policies correlate weakly with actual fertility rates. Women’s decisions about family size are based on material realities.
When basic food supplies are scarce — as in Romania in the 1980s — women are likely to risk their lives having back-alley abortions, for fear of lacking the means to care for a child. Where paid parental leave and childcare are absent or prohibitively expensive, as they are in the US, women are likely to make similar economic choices, regardless of the laws on the books.
After communism, Romania’s people recognized that democratic societies have a responsibility to guarantee women’s bodily autonomy, and to respect the right of all citizens to make their own decisions about whether and when to start or add to a family. It is odd that in the “land of the free,” one of the major parties would emulate a communist dictator.
Maria Bucur is professor of history and gender studies at Indiana University. Kristen R. Ghodsee is professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
Since COVID-19 broke out in Taiwan, there has been a fair amount of news regarding discrimination and “witch hunts” against medical personnel, people under self-quarantine and other targets, such as the students of a school where an infection was discovered. Quarantine breakers are almost certainly on the loose and it is only natural for people to be vigilant. One in Chiayi was found by accident at a traffic stop because his helmet was not fastened. However, those who follow the rules by quarantining themselves should be encouraged to keep up the good work in a difficult situation, instead of being
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator-at-large Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷) has said that there is a huge difference between Chinese military aircraft circling Taiwan along the edges of its airspace and invading Taiwan’s airspace. He also said that whether it is US or Chinese aircraft flying along or encircling Taiwan’s airspace, there is no legal basis to say that such actions imply a clear provocation of Taiwan, and asked the Ministry of National Defense not to mislead the public. People who hear this might think that it is not a very Taiwanese thing to say. US military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan
As the nation welcomes home Taiwanese who had been stranded in China’s Hubei Province — arguably one of the most dangerous places on Earth since the novel coronavirus outbreak began in its capital, Wuhan, late last year — problems surrounding the “quasi-charter flights” that brought them back have been largely overlooked. The media used the term to describe the two flights dispatched by Taiwan’s state-run China Airlines because they do not count as charter flights. Taiwanese wanting to board those flights had to travel — most likely by train — more than 1,000km from Hubei to Shanghai Pudong International Airport
As the COVID-19 pandemic spins out of control, many parts of the world are experiencing shortages of medical masks and other protective equipment. I am studying in Washington state, which at the time of writing is the US state that has suffered the largest number of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The week before last, UW Medicine — an organization that includes the University of Washington School of Medicine and associated medical centers and clinics — sent its volunteers an e-mail asking the public to make masks and donate them to hospitals. Attached to the message was a mask donation