Nicolae Ceaușescu, the President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, defined in a speech from 1986 the role of motherhood in communism: “There is no nobler, more honorable duty for families, for women, than to raise and give the country as many children as possible.”
A few months later, in January 1987, a 35-year-old woman arrived at a hospital in Zalău, Sălaj county, in northwest Romania, with a severe haemorrhage. The doctors diagnosed her with an imminent miscarriage.
A report in the Securitate files states that the medical intervention “aimed to delay the abortion in order to obtain statements regarding abortion manoeuvres”. In short, the woman was suspected of having herself caused an illegal abortion, and those in charge of the case tried to make her confess to this, before allowing the medical staff to give her vital medical care.
The Securitate report dryly records the terrifying details: “Although the patient’s health was deteriorating, the fetus had a forearm already out [of the body] and there were reasons for surgery, it was not performed because the patient did not disclose anything concerning the things she was accused of.” The document states that the patient was threatened repeatedly that there would be no assistance to improve her condition, if she didn’t confess to the methods she used to cause her abortion.
The woman was left to suffer for five days without treatment.
Then she died.
This document records in black and white the slow murder of a woman in a hospital during the darkest years of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s pronatalist policy.
This is a rare find, discovered by historian Florin Soare in the documents of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS), the institution that now hosts part of the Securitate files. Such abusive methods were not usually described in documents. The reality was often distorted and covered up in medical records and reports.
Cogs in the Wheels of Repression
Cogs in the Wheels of Repression
The tragedy of the case in Zalău is further compoundedby the forensic report, which concluded that “there are no indications of a provoked miscarriage”. The woman had not tried to force an abortion, Florin Soare tells The Decree Chronicles.
It was a miscarriage.
Zalău Hospital before 1989 | Photo: Ziarul de Sălaj
This unnamed victim of the anti-abortion repression had registered her pregnancy at her local medical clinic, which was required by law at that time. More importantly, she already had five other children. If she had not wanted to give birth to a sixth child, she could have legally asked for an abortion, because the law stated that she had already fulfilled her duties as a mother to five, and this “right” was therefore available to her.
In addition to looking after her children, she was also the caregiver to both her paralyzed husband, and her ageing father.
The documents discovered by Soare do not mention who decided not to intervene to save the life of the patient from Zalău. Was it the medical staff? The policeman? A Securitate officer? A prosecutor?
This is not a unique case. A doctor told researcher Gail Kligman, author of ‘The Politics of Duplicity – Controlling Reproduction in Ceaușescu’s Romania’, that in cases where there was a suspicion of an illegal procedure, the prosecutors, who had the power to authorize urgent abortions, would arrive at the dying woman’s bedside and ask her: “If you tell us who did this to you, we will let them [doctors] save your life. If not, we will let you die.”
The case above raises the issue of the different people responsible for enforcing the anti-abortion decree of 1966, by vigilantly monitoring compliance and condemning possible deviations from the draconian laws.
Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania was a death camp – but any camp needs zealous guardians to ensure the functioning of the mechanisms of terror. The consequences of Decree 770 would not have been possible without the tens of thousands of Romanians who eagerly implemented the regime’s anti-abortion legislation. Without these cogs in the wheels of the repressive mechanism, its impact would have been powerless.
Nicolae Ceauşescu at a meeting with the main representatives of the communist law enforcment system, April 1970 | Photo: Romanian Communist Online Photo Archive, cota 13/1970
For nearly a quarter of a century, this unseen network of collaborators ensured that women fulfilled the duty of giving the socialist republic as many children as possible.
Doctors Forced to Inform
on Every Abortion
Doctors Forced to Inform on Every Abortion
The act of 1966 almost completely banning on-demand abortions mentioned that, if there was a medical emergency concerning abortion, the doctor had to notify a prosecutor. This could either happen before the intervention or in writing, a maximum of 24 hours after the procedure. Investigators had to ascertain, based on the coroner’s opinion and on any other data, “whether the intervention to terminate the pregnancy was necessary”.
Several public institutions were involved in ensuring women did not violate the provisions of the decree. In addition to the Police, prosecutors and Securitate, there were also disciplinary boards that belonged to the Ministry of Health. They withdrew the right to practice medicine for doctors convicted of performing illegal abortions, Florin Soare tells The Decree Chronicles.
According to the researcher, repression can be divided into three phases.
In 1967, evidence for an internal rule change in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, issued shortly after the Decree was enacted, draws attention to certain abuses that have “harmed” citizens. The 1967 document can be found in the CNSAS archive.
In the Drăgășani district in south Romania’s Vâlcea county, the Chief of Police received an anonymous tip-off about an allegedly pregnant woman who intended to give herself an abortion. He ordered his staff to bring her to the police station, and, from there, she was taken to a medical commission. The doctors examined her, and found she was not pregnant and had not had an abortion. Moreover, the next day, the woman returned to the police station with a certificate showing that she was a virgin.
Four days later, the Deputy Chief, aware of these events, ordered the woman back to the police station, and again she faced a medical commission, so they could confirm that the certificate was authentic.
The document from the Ministry of Internal Affairs lists other humiliating situations for women under investigation. Some police officers ordered pregnant women to come to police stations – “many of whom were married” – to be checked, and asked them to sign a declaration, affirming they would keep the pregnancy.
Due to these uncomfortable situations, a new rule forbid policemen from taking women to doctors to establish their “state of pregnancy”. It added that any verification of violations of the anti-abortion law needed the approval of the Chief of Police.
1973: Mercy Towards Women
Must Be “Immediately Liquidated”
1973: Mercy Towards Women Must Be “Immediately Liquidated”
But this attempt at sensitivity regarding the monitoring of compliance with the Decree 770 evaporated in the early 1970s.
The bureaucratic tone changes dramatically in a document from October 1973. A Ministry of Internal Affairs plan of action no longer mentions abuses or a need to respect the dignity of the woman. The document orders measures for the “immediate liquidation” of any manifestation of indulgence when it comes to the detection and investigation of those guilty of violating the law.
The plan also contained a radical measure that would prove significant for what was to come: the Police Chiefs of the County Inspectorates could appoint police officers to be part of the commissions authorizing abortions.
The Minister of Internal Affairs at that time, Emil Bobu, called for the mobilization of all police officers to “gather” information on women’s pregnancies. It was also urgent to recruit informants in maternity hospitals, which witnessed a large number of miscarriages, as well as in obstetrics-gynaecology departments.
The candidates for spying on women were usually retired doctors, medical students, professors of Medicine and even workers in the medical units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and of Defence. These informants went to prisons, to listen to those already convicted of carrying out illegal abortions, so they could gain new information.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs paid particular attention to supervising medical staff in rural areas.
The Ministry’s plan of action also called for turbocharging its anti-abortion propaganda. The “organs of prosecution and justice” were tasked with organizing public trials on the topic. The forces of law and order had to provide the communist news media with data and materials for publication, “in order to create a public opinion against those who violate the legal standards in this field”.
The mission outlined in the top-secret document began to affect people’s lives in the mid-1970s.
Nicolae Ceausescu dreamed of a nation of at least 30 million Romanians. In a speech in 1974 he reaffirmed his views on state policy concerning births: “A duty of national interest is to protect and strengthen the family, to develop awareness in regard to its responsibility to raise a larger number of children, to form a healthy, robust generation, deeply devoted to the cause of socialism.”
“Women have a special role and a noble mission in this regard,” the leader said. His words expressed a desire, but they also served as a warning. All Romanian women were required to put themselves, with devotion, in the service of the regime’s objectives. The ones who refused were vigilantly dealt with by the guardians of Decree 770.
The documents from the communist era uncovered by Florin Soare show that, in 1974 alone, there were 245 public trials regarding the violation of the anti-abortion law in Romania.
Between 1967 and 1973, 6,350 people were indicted, including 83 doctors and 187 other health workers. The rest were women who had resorted to clandestine abortions orpeople who had helped them. In the first period after the Decree was enacted, an average of about 1,060 people were sent to court each year in connection to illegal abortions.
In the year after the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued its secret plan on hardening the monitoring of the law, the number of indictments doubled, reaching about 2,060 in 1974.
According to Soare, the statistics for criminal cases included not only instances of abortions performed outside the laws of the Decree, but also related situations, such as the illegal possession of curettage kits.
Soare explains that the trials, including the appeal, lasted several months. The sentences for those found guilty were between one and three years of prison, as well as a ban on civil rights during that period.
Repression increased in the mid-1970s because the pronatalist policies did not bring a baby boom to Romania.
In a study published in the CNSAS Notebooks (2009), researcher Liviu Marius Bejenaru provides figures from a report by the Judicial Directorate of the Police. The document states that “since 1969, the number of births has steadily decreased, so that in 1972 there were 139,423 fewer births than in 1967”.
According to Gail Kilgman, the fertility rate rose sharply from 1.9 in 1966 to 3.7 in 1967. In 1973, however, the fertility rate dropped to 2.4, which was close to that in 1966.
The figures show that the population had found ways to circumvent the legislation. The distance between the public image and the private experience is evident in the circumstances surrounding an anti-abortion film, and the wife of the director.
Photo: Romanian theater
The propaganda feature ‘Postcards with Wildflowers’ directed by Andrei Blaier, premiered in 1975. In this film, a young woman dies after having a clandestine abortion in unsanitary conditions. Another girl who knows what happened commits suicide.
According to historian Florin Soare, the movie toured factories, as part of a plan of measures by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In an interview from 2009, Andrei Blaier, the film’s director and screenwriter, revealed that his wife at the time had an illegal abortion right after the film’s premiere in Constanța. They were helped by a doctor friend of the director. The abortion happenedin the local hospital. Later, the director and his wife resorted to the doctor’s services again. This time, the interruption of pregnancy took place in the couple’s home.
“My wife could not keep the pregnancy because she was physically unable to keep it. That was the only salvation for her. It would have meant killing her, wouldn’t it?” – Andrei Blaier, movie director
at the Police Station
Medics Lined-Up at the Police Station
In 1979, almost six years after the adoption of the first secret plan to “repress” illegal abortions, Internal Affairs Minister George Homoștean signed another plan of action. The document uses a tougher tone regarding the policing of women’s bodies. “Given the particularly serious social danger” posed by abortions, the police were called upon to step up its activities to identify and “fight” illegal abortions.
The consequences of this hardline policy were seen in hospitals. A Romanian doctor told researcher Gail Kligman that the era of the decree had different periods, and that the transition from one decade to another was most visible in the emergency rooms of hospitals.
“There was a change in the pathology of abortion over time because non-specialists entered the market [of illegal abortions]. In the 1970s, women with mild bleeding came in, they were hospitalized for a day or two, then they left. In the 80s more and more [came] with infections, serious conditions, and pathologies in advanced stages.”
The criminal investigations, convictions and denunciations of the Securitate informants produced, paradoxically, the opposite effect. Women started resorting to people without medical qualifications to terminate their pregnancies or to teach them how to do it themselves. Most deaths occurred among working class women and housewives, the doctors remember.
“These prosecutors, these judges, these policemen have done a lot of harm! They are responsible for at least a part of the cemeteries of women who died,” says a doctor interviewed by Gail Kligman for the book ‘The Politics of Duplicity’.
A testimony from the same book mentions that a policeman had to spend two hours per day, every day, in a maternity ward.
In an interview for The Decree Chronicles, Dr. Iuliana Balteș recalls how, in the late 80s, as an intern at Bucur Maternity Hospital in Bucharest, she came across similar cases, which left a mark on her.
One night, when she was on call, a man stormed in carrying his wife. He shouted to the doctors: “Save her! Save her!”
“We realized the woman was dead,” she says. “You couldn’t do anything until you notified the prosecutor’s office. (…) If we had said the woman was already dead, he [the husband] would have gone to prison. My fellow intern nodded at me discreetly and told me to try to revive her. Of course I did the manoeuvres and declared her dead in the emergency room.”
Iuliana Balteș remembers that it was a “homemade” abortion, and that the woman had at least three more children. “How much that woman could endure and how afraid she must have been to only come for help at the last minute. Her death probably occurred during the journey to the hospital.”
The doctor also encountered situations in which women did anything to escape. If women caught having an illegal abortion denounced those who had helped them, they escaped prison, says the doctor. Iuliana Balteș found herself called to the police station one time. A woman had declared that one of the staff members of the maternity ward had caused her abortion.
“The police lined up all the doctors and the nurses in a hallway – those who had been on duty that day – and asked the lady to point to the culprit. She didn’t recognize any of us. Later, she confessed that, in fact, she had not been to Bucur Maternity Hospital. Still, it was traumatic to find yourself at the city police station, knowing that you had done nothing wrong…”
During the interrogation, the policeman was civil, says Iuliana Balteș, but very persuasive.
The Convictions Quota
The Convictions Quota
In 1984, the Political Committee of the Romanian Communist Party again emphasized the need to increase the birth rate.
A third secret action plan was approved by Internal Affairs Minister George Homoștean in the spring of 1984. It stated that “all medical units, including those without obstetrics and gynaecology, as well as units where most of the staff is female, according to the principles of collective work, will be put under surveillance.”
In a document from the CNSAS archive, the Securitate reported in 1985, on the issue of ‘Health’, that in Cluj County there were 72 informants and 13 collaborators, including 54 doctors.
In 1984, in Timiș County, there were 51 sources for information, as reported by the local Securitate office, including 18 doctors, 25 nurses and three pharmacists. Among the county’s ‘hostile’ elements was a dentist convicted for performing abortions.
According to statistics compiled by historian Florin Soare, the number of people convicted for abortion-related issues nation-wide doubled in 1986 compared to 1985.
Of the 1,316 people definitively convicted that year, 26 were doctors, 102 were other types of health workers, 986 had other occupations and 202 were without occupation.
Of the definitive sentences, 72% were sentenced to prison, 24% to correctional work, 3% were given suspended sentences and 0.2% were fined. In the vast majority of cases, the prison sentence was reserved for those who had caused an interruption of pregnancy. The women who caused their own abortion were sentenced to correctional work or a fine (in about 80% of cases).
In 1987, there were 1,319 people convicted of giving illegal abortions in the prisons of communist Romania. They represented about 2% of the total number of detainees, according to Soare.
From Informing on Teenage Girls
to Jobs in Local Government
From Informing on Teenage Girls to Jobs in Local Government
Security informants contributed to the increase in the number of investigations and convictions.
A few citizens voluntarily informed on their neighbors, such as Gheorghe Toabeș from Vâlcea county. He was recruited by the Securitate in 1975 to supervise a medical clinic in Pietrari commune, in the same county.
What recommended him for recruitment, according to the documents discovered by CNSAS researchers in the Securitate archives, is that even before his formal relationship with the Securitate, he showed up at the police station to give information about illegal abortions. “The information was confirmed,” note the Securitate officials.
Toabeș signed a work commitment and accused 12 women of intending to have an abortion. The consequences of his denunciations: the women were called to the police station where they were given warnings, and afterwards none of them interrupted their pregnancy. Toabeș denounced another woman in the village for having had an abortion, and the police launched a criminal investigation into her. For his outstanding results, Gheorghe Toabeș was rewarded with 200 lei.
A Romania Court has passed a final judgement establishing that Gheorghe Toabeș secretly collaborated with the repressive police.
After 1989, the informant became a local councillor in the Păușești commune, Vâlcea county, even though he was notorious in the village for his denunciations, as Cătălin Avan, the current mayor, told us. Since then, he was exposed by CNSAS as a collaborator of the Securitate, and is now dead.
Fănică Panait also became a local councillor in Racovița commune, Brăila county, after the Revolution. CNSAS also exposed him as a collaborator with the Securitate. The documents submitted to the court by CNSAS show that, as a nurse in the medical clinic in Șutești commune, he was recruited to inform on abortions He also signed a work commitment.
In an informative handwritten note, Panait informed the Securitate that, following a discussion with some colleagues, he found out that a high school girl from the village had been pregnant and had performed an abortion on herself. The informant was confident that the Securitate would take the “necessary measures”.
Contacted by The Decree Chronicles by phone, Fănică Panait was reluctant to speak to us. When we wanted to talk about “abortions during the communist period”, he ended the conversation.
Police Officers “present” at
Gynaecological Probes on Women
Police Officers “present” at Gynaecological Probes on Women
In addition to abortions, police officers were also involved in gynaecological examinations on women. Testimonies gathered by researchers after 1989 mention that, in many cases, the doctor was assisted by a police officer. Such checks also took place in high schools, according to historian Florin Soare.
Although the checks were done under the official pretext of protecting the woman’s health and the early discovery of any uterine diseases, the presence of policemen showed the real purpose: to detect any undeclared pregnancies.
In Botoșani, in 1983, the communist authorities congratulated themselves because almost 10,000 women in the county between the ages of 20 and 40 had undergone “thorough” gynaecological checks, and 7,200 young girls had participated in “pro-family” education and health actions.
Although few, there were still signs of goodwill and humanity in the era of the Decree. There are cases of doctors who did not report abortions and pregnancies, as well as prosecutors and policemen who turned a blind eye. However, Florin Soare’s conclusion is that the years of the Decree meant a lot of opportunism and dehumanization:
“There were doctors who told on each other,” he says. “Parents who told on their daughters when they had an abortion, and husbands who told on their wives.”
Researcher Gail Kligman also notes in the ‘The Duplicity Policy’ the bitter discovery made by a doctor. In hospitals, all actions depended on the status of the Head of Department. If he managed to hold influence over the policemen, “then some women survived. If the boss was a supporter of the party, then women were left to die until the policeman or prosecutor came”.
When it comes to legal responsibility, it was hard to prove anything after the fall of communism, because the cases relied solely on the testimonies of those who went through the trauma. The medical documents of the time do not always reflect the truth, says Florin Soare. Access to the hospital archives is not an easy task either, and the reasons for refusal can vary, says the historian.
Soare’s mother recounted, with tears in her eyes, a story from 1984, when she was in the hospital giving birth to him. A seriously ill girl was brought to the bed next to hers. The girl was 20 years old. She died shortly after.
In the last hours of her life, the nurses stroked her hair and helplessly asked her:
“Why wouldn’t you admit what happened to you?”
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