Overplanned Parenthood:
Ceausescu's cruel law

Nicolae Ceausescu loved nothing better than a monument to himself. But his ministerial palaces and avenues paled next to another of his schemes for building socialism: a plan to increase Romania's population from 23 million to 30 million by the year 2000. He began his campaign in 1966 with a decree that virtually made pregnancy a state policy. "The fetus is the property of the entire society," Ceausescu proclaimed. "Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity."

It was one of the late dictator's cruelest commands. At first Romania's birthrate nearly doubled. But poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care endangered many pregnant women. The country's infant-mortality rate soard to 83 deaths in every 1,000 births (against a Western European average of less than 10 per thousand). About one in 10 babies was born underweight; newborns weighing 1,500 grams (3 pounds, 5 ounces) were classified as miscarriages and denied treatment. Unwanted survivors often ended up in orphanages. "The law only forbade abortion," says Dr. Alexander Floran Anca of Bucharest. "It did nothing to promote life."

Ceausescu made mockery of family planning. He forbade sex education. Books on human sexuality and reproduction were classified as "state secrets," to be used only as medical textbooks. With contraception banned, Romanians had to smuggle in condoms and birth-control pills. Though strictly illegal, abortions remained a widespread birth-control measure of last resort. Nationwide, Western sources estimate, 60 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion or miscarriage.

The government's enforcement techniques were as bad as the law. Women under the age of 45 were rounded up at their workplaces every one to three months and taken to clinics, where they were examined for signs of pregnancy, often in the presence of government agents - dubbed the "menstrual police" by some Romanians. A pregnant woman who failed to "produce" a baby at the proper time could expect to be summoned for questioning. Women who miscarried were suspected of arranging an abortion. Some doctors resorted for forging statistics. "If a child died in our district, we lost 10 to 25 percent of our salary," says Dr. Geta Stanescu of Bucharest. "But it wasn't our fault: we had no medicine or milk, and the families were poor."

Abortion was legal in some cases: if a woman was over 40, if she already had four children, if her life was in danger - or, in practice, if she had Communist Party connections. Otherwise, illegal abortions cost from two to four months' wages. If something went wrong, the legal consequences were enough to deter many women from seeking timely medical help. "Usually women were so terrified to come to the hospital that by the time we saw them it was too late," says Dr. Anca. "Often they died at home." No one knows how many women died from these back-alley abortions.

"Celibacy tax": A woman didn't have to be pregnant to come under scrutiny. In 1986 members of the Communist youth group were sent to quiz citizens about their sex lives. "How often do you have sexual intercourse?" the questionnaire read. "Why have you failed to conceive?" Women who did not have children, even if they could not, paid a "celibacy tax" of up to 10 percent of their monthly salaries.

The rebels who overthrew Ceausescu last month quickly rescinded the policy. "I would have killed Ceausescu for that law alone," says Maria Dulce from her bed at Bucharest's Municipal Hospital. The 29-year-old mother of two is recovering from a self-induced abortion. Here eyes are bruised with fatigue. She is among a half dozen women in the dingy hospital room. Dulce says she terminated her pregnancy because of the trauma associated with caring for her second child, an 18-month-old boy. "We had to buy milk on the black market," she says, "and we had to buy a heater just for the baby's room." She had to have an emergency hysterectomy only days before the uprising. "Now that it's possible for a woman to be a woman again I'm mutilated," Dulce says through tears. "And now there is a reason to have a child in this country."

from Karen Breslau, "Overplanned Parenthood: Ceausescu's cruel law", Newsweek, Jan. 22, 1990, p. 35.



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