Tue, May 21, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Banning abortion would turn the US into Ceausescu’s Romania

By Maria Bucur and Kristen R. Ghodsee

“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.

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