The communist-era abortion ban that harmed a generation of Romanians

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Romania’s communist-era abortion ban harmed hundreds of thousands of children. Is history repeating itself?

In 1966, when Romania was a communist country, dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu became concerned about the country’s declining birthrate. He wanted to ensure there was a large workforce to carry out his ambitions, so he greenlit the infamous Decree No. 770, which restricted elective abortions almost completely.

“The fetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu said at the time. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.”

Ceaușescu announced that women had “the patriotic duty” to bear at least four children. His goal was to increase the country’s population from 19 million to 30 million by the end of the 20th century.

President of Romania Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena together with a group of children wearing traditional costumes. Romania, 1980s (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio\Mondadori via Getty Images)

The consequences were vast and devastating, to the point that they served as part of the basis for Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

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Under the decree, abortions were permitted only if a woman already had at least four children (later raised to at least five), was over 45 years old, had a life-threatening pregnancy or was a victim of rape. The imports of contraceptives were also severely restricted, so those who wanted to avoid an unplanned pregnancy didn’t have much to rely on. For many women, becoming pregnant was just a matter of time.

A baby boom with no safety net

At first, Ceaușescu’s plans to increase the Romanian population appeared to work. During the decree’s first year, the so-called child production nearly doubled, reaching around 528,000 babies, the largest generation in the country’s history.

But while the dictator wanted a baby boom, he was not prepared for its consequences. The country didn’t have the resources to support such a large generation, and many families had already been living in poverty.

The magnitude of the resulting disaster became visible to the world only after the fall of communism, when Western media published photos of Romania’s orphans, wide-eyed and traumatized, crowded in filthy beds in state-run facilities. Around 170,000 children were living in orphanages. Many of them were sick, had disabilities, suffered from malnutrition, or had emotional and mental setbacks. Visiting foreigners heard toddlers calling out “mama” or “take me,” hoping someone would offer them a home.

“Perhaps the harshest legacy of the Ceausescu regime fell to the children,” the New York Times wrote in 1990.

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(GERMANY OUT) Romania - Reghin. Orphans in the orphanage - 12.04.1990  (Photo by Knut Müller/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

After hearing the stories and seeing the heartbreaking images of Romania’s unwanted children, foreign charities offered their support, and thousands of families from the U.S., Canada and Western Europe decided to adopt. However, tens of thousands of orphans still remained in orphanages or foster care; some ended up on the street.

The neglect experienced by these children prompted American researchers to study them using brain-imaging methods. They found that the lack of parental bonding had changed their brains profoundly.

“If we think of development as a tower of stacking blocks, imagine what happens if the second block is slightly displaced from the first, and the third slightly displaced from the second, and the fourth slightly displaced from the third, and so on. Ultimately the column of blocks begins to lean precipitously, even if the displacement of each block is only very slight,” researchers Charles A. Nelson, Nathan A. Fox and Charles H. Zeanah wrote in their book, “Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery.”

The children of the decree, often called “decreței,” were human casualties of Ceaușescu’s ambition, and the tragedy extended far beyond the state-run facilities. Children who were part of large families faced hardship as well because their parents struggled to make ends meet.

Some mothers wrote directly to Ceaușescu, announcing that they had done their “patriotic duty” but needed help to raise their children. Some chose the name Nicolae or Nicoleta for their babies and invited Ceaușescu to the baptism ceremony. Symbolically, he was the father of the newborn. “It was like: ‘You wanted the kid, help me raise it!’” said Corina Doboș, a researcher and associate lecturer in history at the University of Bucharest.

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Image of a handwritten letter in blue ink on white paper.

The parents of these babies were often overwhelmed, although the state offered them some minimal financial support, and it allowed new mothers to receive 100 days of paid time off after giving birth.

While this was hardly enough, at least it was something, Doboș said. “In the U.S., I haven’t heard of additional support for mothers. The fetus is the issue, not the future child,” she said. (Today, Romanian women can take up to two years of paid maternity leave. In the United States, there is no federal guarantee of maternity leave at all.)

The decision to restrict abortions had effects in every area of the Romanian economy. For instance, thousands of nurseries had to be built overnight, then kindergartens and schools. And since costs were kept as low as possible, classrooms were always crowded, often having more than 40 pupils.

The result was that “children born after the ban on abortions had worse educational and labor market achievements as adults,” according to a 2005 paper by Cristian Pop-Eleches, then in the department of economics at Columbia University.

Ceaușescu’s determination to increase the population caused trauma to hundreds of thousands of children. But women paid a steep price, too.


Romania’s kitchen-table abortions

Daniela Draghici was a teenager when she first found that the Communist Party wanted to keep an eye on her body. In the early 1970s, while she was in high school, she and her peers had to undergo pelvic exams. They guessed that the school wanted to check if any of them were pregnant, with the implication that they would monitor any pregnancy to prevent a potential abortion.

“Some girls were offended, some ashamed, but all of us were afraid,” Draghici said. “Afraid we might find out we were pregnant because we had been holding hands with or, worse, kissing our boyfriends.”

Regular pelvic exams were mandatory for women between the ages of 16 and 45, and refusing them meant potentially losing access to medical care, pension and social security. For the communists, the human body was a “malleable instrument for the achievement of the socialist aim,” wrote researchers Andreea Andrei and Alina Branda in a 2015 paper.

“It was said that, just like cheese, a woman has to become mature, and she can’t become mature unless she produces babies,” Doboș added.

With contraceptives so hard to come by, it was not uncommon for women to have unplanned pregnancies. When it happened, many followed a variety of old wives’ tales to induce a miscarriage.

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“Women would put alcohol inside their vaginas, oleander leaves and all kinds of toxic substances,” according to Dr. Ana Culcer, who worked in the neonatology department at the Emergency University Hospital in Bucharest during communism.

Of course, these methods did not work, and women had to reach out to underground abortion networks. It happened to Draghici in 1974, when she was a first-year student at the University of Bucharest in the English culture and literature department. She worked hard in school and did not feel prepared to raise a baby. So she reached out to an underground network of people who performed back-alley abortions.

“One night, a woman took me to a house in a rural area near Bucharest,” Draghici said. “She told me to lay on the kitchen table, and she put a rag in my mouth. She said not to scream if I feel pain because the neighbors might hear and report us.” If caught, the person doing the procedure would have faced between two and 10 years of prison, while Draghici would have risked up to two years behind bars.

These kitchen-table abortions, with no anesthesia, were common. Nearly every woman born during communism knows someone who took desperate measures to terminate a pregnancy. (Studies have shown that banning abortions does not stop them from happening; they just become riskier.)

Draghici’s initial procedure failed because the person performing it “was probably not a medical professional,” she said. (In Romania, back-alley abortions were often carried out by people who had no medical training but were willing to risk going to jail for a pack of American cigarettes or a month’s salary.)

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She had to reach out to another underground network and go through the whole agonizing process again — this time, though, with an actual doctor.

Some of these clandestine procedures ended tragically. Historians estimated that more than 12,000 women lost their lives during the 23 years the decree was in place, and according to the World Health Organization, the country had the highest maternal mortality rate in Europe.

Draghici considers herself lucky to be alive. Many women bled heavily after a poorly done procedure. Often, they hesitated to go to a hospital, fearing that the Securitate Secret Police might put them in jail. Upon arriving at a hospital, bleeding women had to be questioned by officers before doctors were allowed to help them. Many did not survive.

“Vulnerable women who faced financial struggles … were the first to be affected by the restriction of abortions,” Doboș said. “It was true for communist Romania and will be true for the U.S. now.”

The decree restricting abortions was in effect until the end of 1989, when Ceaușescu was overthrown as a part of the anti-communist uprisings that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe. At that time, food shortages fueled massive protests, and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded his resignation.

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On Dec. 22, 1989, Ceașescu fled the capital city of Bucharest with his wife, Elena, and on Christmas Day, the two were shot by a firing squad following a short trial. The very next day, the decree that restricted abortions was abolished, along with a few other laws that limited human rights — the first legislative changes in democratic Romania.

Three decades after the decree lost its power, the stories of humiliated women and suffering children seem to have faded from the collective memory, and the anti-abortion movement has resurged.

Can history repeat itself?

The fall of communism brought new opportunities and a sense that people could finally build their own futures. Draghici wanted to be part of the change, and she quickly found her mission: educating people about reproductive health and contraceptives.

“No woman goes through an abortion because she wants to,” Draghici said. “She does it because there’s no other reasonable option.”

In the early 1990s, more than 5,000 Romanian doctors and nurses were trained in family planning, with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Draghici helped set up family planning programs and worked on Romania’s first sex education manual for teenagers.

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For decades, she felt she was making progress. But in recent years, the fight for reproductive freedoms has become more pitched. The number of family planning clinics, for instance, has decreased, and those that still operate lack birth control pills because the Ministry of Health is not funding them anymore. (The clinics could, however, receive support in the future under the European Union’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, a large stimulus package meant to help rebuild Europe after covid-19.)

Getting an abortion has also become more difficult. Many medical professionals refuse to perform the procedure; the law allows them to decline interventions that contradict their beliefs. Last year, in a quarter of Romania’s counties, no elective abortion was performed. Of the 171 Romanian public hospitals surveyed by the non-governmental organization Centrul Filia last year, 69 admitted they don’t do elective abortions, mostly because doctors refuse them.

“What’s happening in Romania is part of a larger movement, an ideological war being waged in the U.S., Europe and Russia,” said Andrada Cilibiu, a reproductive health activist working for Centrul Filia. “Anti-abortion priests go to hospitals and medical schools to promote their pro-life ideas.”

American Christian organizations have funded dozens of so-called pregnancy crisis centers in Romania in recent years, with the goal of convincing pregnant people not to abort.

The Christian Orthodox Church is also against abortions, and its words carry a lot of weight because Romania is one of the most religious countries in Europe. “The fetus is a human being and has its own identity and dignity; although unseen, their face reminds us of the ‘Thou shalt not kill’ commandment,” Vasile Bănescu, spokesperson for the Romanian Orthodox Church, told Grid. “The church can never be anti-natalist.”

But Bănescu also believes a complete ban on abortions would be “irrational and unrealistic.” He added that the church permits the procedure in specific cases, including when the life of the mother is at stake.

Last year, the Orthodox Church opposed the introduction of sex education classes in schools, saying it would be “an attack on the innocence of children.” As a result, the subject was rebranded as health education and will be offered to students starting eighth grade only if parents consent. Since parents in vulnerable communities are often heavily influenced by the church, the kids who need information the most might be the least likely to get it.

The plan to introduce sex education was an attempt to curb the number of teen pregnancies, which is one of the highest in the European Union — almost a quarter of the European mothers aged under 18 live in Romania, and some of them are 11 or 12 years old, according to the Save the Children humanitarian organization. “Romania has around 35 teen moms per 1,000 teens, while the European average is around 10,” said George Roman, director of advocacy for Save the Children Romania.

Often, these families can’t put enough food on the table, so the babies risk becoming undernourished or even abandoned. Three decades after the fall of communism, Romania still hasn’t fully reformed its orphanages. The last state-run facilities that still operate are scheduled to be closed by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the children who were living in Romania’s wretched orphanages have become adults. Some now lead fulfilling lives, but they are the lucky exceptions. Most of the orphans suffered lasting trauma that has reverberated for decades.

It’s why Roman, Draghici and Cilibiu follow the conversation around the loss of abortion rights in the U.S. so closely. If the United States continues to eat away at reproductive rights, other countries are likely to follow.

Oana Racheleanu contributed to this report. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Andrada Fiscutean
    Andrada Fiscutean

    Freelance Reporter

    Andrada Fiscutean is a science and technology journalist based in Bucharest, Romania.

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Abortion