Between 1966 and 1989 abortion was illegal in the communist dictatorship of Romania. A gynecologist who broke the law to allow hundred of women to terminate their pregnancies talks openly for the first time.
B.T. graduated from Medicine in the second half of the 1970s. After college, he completed a three-year residency. Half of this time was spent in Obstetrics and Gynecology departments. That is where he first learned how to perform curettage, a surgical scraping or scooping of the contents of the uterus, which is used to abort a fetus.
At college, he did not learn the procedure, but he quickly mastered the technique. However, the hospitals drastically limited his access to curettage instruments.
By the time B.T. became a fully-fledged gynecologist, Romania had spent 15 years under Decree 770, which almost completely banned abortion. This was only allowed on-demand for women over a certain age who had completed their duty to the country as mothers, by giving birth to at least four children.
In addition, contraceptives were almost non-existent. A black market for abortions developed, causing the communist regime to tighten the legislation which treated abortion as a crime, and send policemen and Secret Service officers to inspect the corridors and wards of hospitals.
For an adult woman in communist Romania, sex life was a struggle, a space of insecurity, fear and – not infrequently – of desperate decisions. Every year, many women turned to midwives, nurses, doctors, or to anyone willing to offer them an abortion through any means necessary.
Hundreds of women died every year from complications developed during illegal abortions. In the hospital, where they often arrived late, they were denied care until they confessed before the police about who had helped them terminate their pregnancy.
Between 1973 and 1984, several orders spanning dozes of pages were adopted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs concerning the supervision and fight against illegal abortions. Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania had only one goal: to increase birth rates in order to give the regime a demographic boost.
20 million Romanians, 25 million Romanians, 30 million Romanians – no threshold was impossible to reach in an era in which the uterus was transformed into an instrument of party and state policy.
Under the provisions of a secret order adopted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in March 1984 policemen were tasked with supervising doctors in maternities, hospitals and clinics. | Photo: CNSAS
With a curettage forceps in his hand, B.T. realized he had the means to act in opposition to this system. He could help women get rid of unwanted pregnancies in a country that forced them to spend all their sexual maturity going from birth to birth. In the early 1980s, he made his first illegal curettage. The second followed. Then the tenth. Then another and another.
He had performed more than a hundred abortions by the time he was arrested. In the end, the regime proved stronger than B.T. and his forceps. Despite the doctor’s illusions, no one was free in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Fear was stronger than defiance.
We meet with B.T. at the beginning of autumn, on a terrace in west Bucharest. The year is 2021. More than three decades have passed since the fall of communism. B.T. did not defeat the Ceausescu regime with his forceps – but he can describe the brutal effects of a dictatorship that rules over women’s bodies.
The doctor has never before spoken publicly about the horrific experiences in his clients’ apartments, women on whom he often performed curettages live on their kitchen table. No woman who passed through the doctor’s hands died.
But what B.T. did with improvised instruments was not medicine. It was an act of humanity carried out in inhuman conditions towards women who – in the absence of a gynecologist – would have resorted to anyone to help them terminate their pregnancy.
Generally, before 1989, illegal abortions were not performed by doctors. The professional risk was too great. Clandestine termination of pregnancy was an act performed mainly by non-professionals with minimal knowledge and skills. Not infrequently, pregnant women themselves sought to force termination with home-made methods. For example, they inserted plant stems into their vaginal cavity, at the risk of major, life-threatening infections.
B.T. has only one condition for making his testimony public: he wants us to protect his identity. He is not at peace with the thought that he might expose his family and himself to the judgment of those who do not understand what the need to survive can do to a person.
We accept, even if that means we have to leave out the details of his arrest, which could expose him. There are extremely few doctors who have spoken out in postcommunism about the women they saw lying on their kitchen tables before 1989, waiting to regain their uterus which had been transformed by absurd laws into state property.
Today B.T. follows the European discussion about banning on-demand abortion. His testimony, though late, is not meaningless to this debate: the doctor standing in front of us has long understood that prohibition always ends up causing suffering and death to women.
The terrace in the west of Bucharest is deserted on this mild autumn morning. We agree to record the discussion, in order to ensure the faithful transcription of the recounted events.
For B.T., the recorder sitting on the table between us is much more than a device. It is a confessional.
When did you start performing illegal abortions?
After 1981. I had been quick to learn the procedure during my residency.
Weren’t you afraid that you might be caught, and it would immediately end your career?
When they arrested me, they could tell me everything I had eaten for the previous two years. They knew everything about me, everything, despite all the measures I’d taken to protect myself. Yes, I was afraid. But what made me do this was my openly defiant spirit. I was doing this for a pack of cigarettes. Kent White, though they were not my favorite cigarettes.
How did you do it?
At first, I rented the instruments. They were hard to rent, and cost a lot of money. More precisely, when a curettage cost 7,000lei [at that time] renting [the instruments] cost 2,000 lei for 24 hours. You could do ten curettages during that time. As I didn’t take any money, the first women who I performed curettage on supported the cost of the instruments. I would ask them for money to rent the instruments.
Where did you rent them from?
There was a turner [a craftsman knowledgeable in metal and woodwork] who worked in a factory. He had made some rough instruments.
Had anyone else ordered them?
I wasn’t the only one renting from him. There were two of us in the hospital doing this. My colleague managed to find him. He was so scared that he didn’t want to reveal his source to me, so always used to go get the kit himself.
That turner could have denounced you to the authorities…
It would have been hard for him, because he really liked money.
Did you perform the first abortion with this rented kit?
Yes, the woman was four and a half months pregnant. A female acquaintance held the valve (a part of the curettage kit), an extremely disgusting occupation. I normally finish a curettage in about 10-12 minutes but for this one, I worked for about three and a half hours. I couldn’t stop cursing that I had started something like that.
I had crazy courage. At nearly five months’ old, the fetus’s skull is about this big [B.T. makes a circle] and you have to extract it through an even smaller hole. And then I did an absolutely criminal thing. I caught the uterine fundus [the uppermost part of the uterus], grabbed it with my left hand, and with the curette I located the skull and perforated it. Only the skull, because if I had pierced further, the woman would have died.
Why had that client called for a curettage so late in the pregnancy?
She hadn’t been able to find anyone [to terminate her pregnancy]. You couldn’t find people. It was extremely difficult to find a doctor. If I had known from the start how advanced the pregnancy was, I wouldn’t have accepted. I felt like I lost two years of my life that day. It was terrible.
Was the procedure done without an anesthetic?
For the first curettages, I managed to get mialgin, a clean opioid. I managed to get it for the first seven or eight curettages. I don’t remember the source anymore, but it certainly wasn’t from the hospital.
What disinfectant did you use for the instruments?
I would boil them for an hour. It could be at any pressure. I would arrive at the woman’s home and do this for an hour or so.
Did you always rent the kit? Or did you end up having your own kit?
I got my own kit. It was made by another turner who worked at the factory, August 23. A very bad kit. My God, such a bad kit! It was frightful to use. The curette wasn’t precise enough, so I had to work a lot with dilatation.
Can you be more explicit?
Dilation means enlarging the cervix area. It is the most painful process during curettage. Think about it: today, for a full two-months pregnancy I go with a dilation of up to a maximum of nine. Before, even if I had a five-week pregnancy, I had to go with 11. And it hurts like hell. And let me tell you something: the earlier the pregnancy, the harder it is to dilate. I didn’t have a small curette. It was so big that I had to go to 11 to insert the curette. That kit was really bad.
How did a turner know how to make such instruments?
A relative who knew some turners helped me. This person went to several turners, so as not to get caught. He asked for curettes from some, hegars (dilators used to induce cervical dilation) from others, and then he did some of the work himself. But I am sure everyone picked up on what was happening.
Where did you keep this personal kit?
In a closet.
Did you ever rent out your personal kit?
No, I was too scared. The only other person who knew was a friend of mine who occasionally came with me to hold the valve. I needed it. You can’t do a curettage on your own. If he couldn’t come, there would be people close to the pregnant woman [who would hold the valve]. It’s very disgusting. Many fainted. It’s extraordinarily aggressive in many ways.
We will have to ask you again to be descriptive, no matter how harsh the details.
Many of the women were not anesthetized. At some point I came up with the idea of doing local anesthesia in parameters. I entered with a long needle and did the anesthesia. It was relatively more bearable. A curettage is not at all pleasant, you know. It hurts like hell. But women knew how to bear it. Women are exceptionally resistant to pain. They have a high pain threshold. If it were me, I would have died a hundred times. And these women refrained from shouting, from making noise. I’ve never seen anything like it.
What social backgrounds did your clients have?
Totally random. I even had two from the top party level. Many came to me through acquaintances: ‘I know a doctor, let’s ask him’.
Did they ever come to you at the hospital?
Yes, sure. I would be on call [at the hospital] and they would come and ask me. I also performed abortions on policemen’s wives. I did one in my own home. It was the policeman himself, the husband of the woman, who came to ask me. From then on, every time the police took my driver’s license, the husband would come and bring it back. Another abortion I did in my own home was for a foreign student. She had no other place to go, she was living in a student hall.
Were you ever contacted by women who had attempted [to have an abortion] with someone who wasn’t a medical professional and the procedure had failed?
Yes, but I didn’t touch those cases because they were very risky. Most of them [the women] were digging at it, that was the term we used, they put plant stems inside themselves. The risk of death was very high.
Did you see cases of women coming to the hospital in such a condition?
At least once a day. Mortality was very high. Whoever says it wasn’t is lying. They came to the hospital either by ambulances or on their own two feet. They were all hospitalized as emergencies. And they were dying, so many of them were dying.
Doctor, how many illegal abortions did you perform before 1989?
110-120 terminations of pregnancy.
In what period did you do them?
1981-1987. In about six years.
Why did you stop?
I was arrested, and I didn’t like the days I spent in jail. They were very, very unpleasant for me. They detained me for an imaginary felony. Among my clients, I had some prostitutes to whom I offered medical services. They [the police] took in one of the prostitutes and she told them my name.
Some of the doctors who performed abortions were exposed in the media. | Photo: Flamura Prahovei, June 1986
What did you do with the kit?
I had thrown it into a lake. By the way, after I was released from custody, I had a case. Let me tell you about it. A curettage right in my building. The patient’s family got hold of a kit. I didn’t have the kit anymore. Initially I refused them. I even told them I couldn’t get a kit. Then the husband said ‘I have a kit’. He showed it to me. It looked complete and proper. Not like what I had before. It was like it had been taken out of a hospital. I think it had been, because there were kits being taken out of hospitals. But this kit did not have the most basic tool. There is a certain forceps we call “tirbal”. The kit was missing precisely that. I worked with a regular forceps. The cervix would slip every ten seconds.
How come you decided to throw away the kit before the arrest?
It was after an almost failed case. I nearly pierced the woman. She was at my house. I threw it [the kit] away so that I would have to stop [performing abortions], to quit.
Of the one hundred or so abortions you performed, was there any case that required hospitalization?
There was a situation. But I told them all: ‘nothing happens if you lose blood, you go to the hospital and you don’t say anything, you don’t admit to anything’. She went to the hospital, her bleeding stopped and nothing happened.
But weren’t there traces of intervention visible?
I had a special way of operating. The tirbal forceps is applied on the cervix at 12 o’clock. I applied it at 6 o’clock. The cervix is positioned in a certain way as you look at the vagina, so it is much easier to apply the forceps at 12 o’clock than at 6. But if you do it at 6, it doesn’t show that you applied it. Because the first thing the doctors looked at was if there were any signs of curettage, any trace of tirbal. They couldn’t see it if it was at 6 o’clock.
What happened when women with an incomplete abortion came to the hospital?
It was mandatory for a prosecutor to be called. As soon as I put the woman on the table to do the curettage, a prosecutor was called. One of the nurses told him: ‘We have this many abortions in progress, they will need curettage’. We had cases where we didn’t bother with the hospitalization forms, we put the women directly on the operating table, and I said: ‘I’m doing the curettage, I don’t care. I’m trying to save her life, otherwise she dies’. The officer would come and sometimes he would start questioning the woman. He was interested in finding out who had caused the termination. But he didn’t always come. I think he had too many cases.
Do you know doctors who have had criminal charges brought against them because of illegal curettages?
When I was arrested, there was another female doctor there.
Do you know cases of doctors in Bucharest who were sentenced and imprisoned?
Yes, there was a doctor, one younger than me. Another one was caught while performing the curettage, a team had come to arrest him, and brought along a cameraman. They caught him in the act. They filmed him finishing the curettage and arrested him.
How did you proceed when you went to do a curettage?
I often didn’t do anything for a while, for fear that someone might walk in on us. I would hide the kit, not necessarily that well, and I would just sit around for ten minutes. Then the kit had to be boiled for an hour and a half.
Did you always boil it there, at the woman’s home?
Always. I was often told it was already boiled. I couldn’t risk it and then I boiled it myself again. An hour and a half. Then you had to wait for it to cool. A curette has a thick handle that cools very slowly. That took at least another half hour. And then the curettage, which could last a hell of a long time, or it could last ten minutes.
So the whole procedure could take three to four hours?
And the woman was waiting with you while you boiled the instruments?
Yes. I was a pretty funny guy. I knew how to make her forget about the fear.
Was the person who was helping you there from the start?
Always. A few times I thought I was being followed, I was paranoid. I kept looking in the rearview mirror. I felt like I was being watched. Once I got out of the car and changed a wheel. I was trying to be cautious, and not to take any risks. I later realized that I wouldn’t have been able to tell I was being followed, that’s how good they were.
Have you ever wondered whether you had a microphone in your home?
Yes, that’s why I never discussed these things on the phone. I would give women a friend’s phone number. We only talked face to face. But let’s face it: a hundred curettages made on the kitchen table were not that many at the time.
Have you ever had any remorse?
Never, never… I had different fears, but never remorse. On the contrary, I considered myself some sort of hero. And I think I had reason to. Even now I think I had reason to. It was a horrible, horrible limitation of human rights. Women were dying, do you understand?
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