ROMANIA – Access to abortion is shrinking in Romania — again

In a country that famously banned terminations, with devastating consequences, new medical rules are once again costing women’s lives

Alina Usurelu sensed she was pregnant. An independent artist, she often works with her body, which is how she quickly noticed it change. “Very rationally, I knew I couldn’t deal with having a kid,” the 33-year-old told me in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, citing her financial insecurity. A pregnancy test last September confirmed her suspicion.

But in the city of 1.8 million, Usurelu could not find an affordable, state-run hospital online. “I was struggling. My anxiety grew,” she told New Lines a few months later. We met near her apartment in one of Bucharest’s central neighbourhoods, where buildings with high ceilings are sandwiched between crumbling Soviet-era blocks.

In Romania, abortions are legal but access is shrinking. The vast majority of state hospitals don’t offer terminations, while private centres are unaffordable to most. Usurelu faced a decision: She could continue her search, hoping she didn’t reach the time limit of 14 weeks for legal abortions; or pay around $920 in a private clinic, double the monthly rent on her small Bucharest home.

Ultimately, she posted on a women-only Facebook group for discussing toxic relationships, where her message was picked up by a member of the Independent Midwives Association (AMI). They helped her obtain a nonsurgical, or medical, abortion for free. The nonprofit organization handles around a dozen such cases every week in Romania, helping women who find it through social media, its website or its youth hotline.

The combination of Romania’s powerful Orthodox Church and the spread of misinformation by US-backed conservative organizations means Romanians are increasingly unable to access abortion services. Last year, a woman who was 13 weeks pregnant died in hospital after she showed up in pain and bleeding, only to be told by doctors to wait until the next day. Four years ago, a woman died from a haemorrhage after a back-alley abortion.

Such cases bring back memories of the ban under the communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, which lasted for 24 years, killing an estimated 10,000 women through unsafe abortions, increasing crime and creating filthy orphanages often packed with children who suffered from abuse and low nutrition. Women without any medical training devised their own barbaric methods of self-induced abortion at home, using clothes hangers, knitting needles, poisonous plant stems, and even vacuum cleaners. Some were left mutilated, and doctors who performed the abortions in secret often risked their careers, their freedom and even their lives.

Romania departed from other countries in the Soviet bloc: Russia was the first modern state to legalize abortion in 1920 and this was quickly extended to the rest of the Soviet Union. While Josef Stalin banned the procedure in 1936, abortions became legal and widely available again in 1955, following his death. Most satellite states including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania followed suit in the 1950s, but Ceausescu prohibited abortion again in 1966 in an attempt to raise the country’s low birth rate. Within one year, the birth rate rose from 1.9 to 3.7 children per woman. But by 1989, at the end of the ban, maternal death rates had also doubled.

Melanie Elena Tudose, the President of the AMI and still a practicing midwife, worked in a septic ward of a hospital in the 1980s, treating women with infections and often finishing backstreet abortions in a sanitary setting. Still, she saw hundreds of women die. “I still remember the last look in their eyes. And the way their skin turned orange because of the infection.

In the early 1990s, after Ceausescu’s overthrow, the new government founded the country’s first family planning programme. Abortion was legalized (up to 14 weeks), sex education was introduced in schools and contraception was given out free.

But over the past decade, funding for the programme has been cut, and scores of clinics have shut down. Hoping to profit, some doctors refuse to carry out the procedure in a public hospital citing “conscientious objection” laws, and redirect women to their private practice. These laws, which allow medical professionals to abstain from carrying out procedures that might conflict with their religious or moral beliefs, were included in Romania’s professional code for medics in 2016, partly thanks to a campaign by the powerful Orthodox Church. Parents now have to opt in for their children to receive sexual education and opt out of religious studies.

Abortion-rights activists urged Europeans to vote against a populist surge in the bloc’s recent parliamentary elections, as the growing far right challenges abortion access across the continent. While the political centre managed to hold on to its majority in the European Parliament, far-right parties gained seats, coming a clear first in France and Austria, winning the most seats in the Netherlands and coming second in seats and vote share in Germany. In Romania, the vocally anti-abortion, far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians received 15% of the votes, second only to the total for the country’s governing grand coalition of the Social Democratic Party and National Liberal Party.

The centrist government in Romania faces three elections this year, including a presidential vote in September. But reproductive rights are largely absent from politics. This doesn’t mean the American bankrolling of Christian and conservative lobbying groups in Europe is going anywhere, however….

In the past two years, the AMI helped around 400 women, among them Ukrainian refugees and other minorities, including Roma and illiterate women, by providing them with information, connecting them to institutions providing safe abortions and obtaining funding for their journey or the procedure. “This should not be a job for an NGO, it should be the state,” said Irina Mateescu, the AMI’s vice president. “It’s… outrageous.”

She has personal experience: In 2000, pregnant at 18, she walked into a Bucharest-based Pregnancy Crisis Center, a covertly anti-abortion institution inspired by the US, where she had to watch an anti-abortion movie.

When feminist activist Daniela Draghici procured an abortion in 1974, she almost died afterwards. She became pregnant even though she was using some sort of contraception that she had picked up “below the counter”. “I had to insert it into my vagina before sex, and it burned like hell,” she said.

Through an underground network, Draghici went to an old lady in the suburbs of Bucharest. With no anaesthetics to hand, the woman gave her a piece of rug to bite down on while she performed the operation on a kitchen table. Draghici decided the operation wasn’t successful when her morning sickness returned. The second time, she was taken to a male doctor, in another district of Bucharest, who likely saved her life with another operation, also performed on a kitchen table.

Draghici later worked with U.S. organizations spreading information and contraceptive equipment around the country. At 71, she wears her red hair short, matching her orange flip-flop-shaped earrings, and speaks fast with an American accent. “I’ll give up when I’m dead. Up until that time I have to do this because not enough people are talking about it,” she said. “The restrictions could come back.”

There are no statues to the women who perished during the abortion ban. Bucharest’s Museum of Communism, a narrow two-story building sandwiched between a Hungarian beer garden and a rock club, dedicates a short paragraph to the daring doctors who performed life-saving operations. Women are mostly absent from the room, the history books and classrooms.

This article ends with the deaths of two pregnant women, one a mother of three, and the other age 38 and four months pregnant. Both arrived at the same hospital at different times in a lot of pain. In both cases they were told someone would take care of them in the morning. In both cases, by the morning, they were both dead from sepsis….

Their deaths speak to larger issues. “We know of doctors who want to do (abortions), but the management of the hospital doesn’t allow them,” said Mateescu in a back room of the AMI’s office in Bucharest. As if to illustrate her point, she explained how her organization is converting this space into a room for medical examinations.

Behind her, in a locked glass cabinet, were rows of abortion pills in packs.

SOURCE: New Lines Magazine, by Lili Rutai. 14 June 2024 + VISUAL: Previous New Lines cover. This article follows on from Daniela Draghici’s from last week…