Abortion in Poland and Romania: two former communist countries, completely different experiences
Poland and Romania are two countries that share a lot of similar experiences from a cultural and historical point of view, but as we will see in this article, it is their differences that makes them stand out on the European scene. Both experienced their fair share of occupations, partitions and communist dictatorship and both had a chance of a rebirth after 1989. Despite their similarities, their trajectories were quite different and this is reflected in the way in which the two states also tackle sensitive issues such as abortion. While one country is very pro-life, the other is European champion at abortion. Nevertheless, the two countries have similar birth rates: for the year 2013, it is estimated that the birth rate for Romania was of 9.4 births/1,000 population and in Poland of 9.88 births/1,000 population. ( http://www.indexmundi.com/)
The following examination will look at the two countries’ overall history of abortion and try to determine possible reasons why they are situated at two opposite poles on this issue. To do this, we will look at the role of the foreign influence, political parties and religion.
Abortion in Poland
Poland is one of the most pro-life oriented countries in Europe, but few know that it hasn’t always been like this. Starting in 1932, abortion was legally performed if there were medical reasons indicating that the pregnancy endangered the life of the women. Poland was also the first country to accept abortion in the case of pregnancies which were a result of a criminal act. This law was effective until WWII, when under the rule of Hitler, abortion was possible on demand in Poland. This was not the case in Germany, where it was still considered a crime. At that time, Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and head of the Party chancellery said:
“The Slavs are to work for us. In so far as we do not need them, they may die. Slav fertility is not desirable.”( Robert S. Wistrich, Who’s who in Nazi Germany (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 19). This quote appears also on pro-life websites and the topic has been brought up recently by Polish pro-life activists in a few interviews.
In May 2010, Polish abortion activists shocked the public opinion by displaying graphic billboards with aborted fetuses and the face of Hitler, in order to remind the Poles of the Nazi rule. Nevertheless, this argument is used by isolated groups who are aiming at putting the equal sign between abortion and murder or abortion and the Nazi regime. The main reason why many Poles oppose the legalization of abortion nowadays has to do with religious convictions mainly.*
At the end of WWII, things went back to how they wore before, but later it was the Communist regime that permitted abortion on demand. Some criteria still had to be met however: the mother had to prove either that she had no means for raising a child or that the future baby was the product of a crime.
In 1980, abortion became possible only with the affidavit of the physician and since there were no regulations restricting it, many abuses took place.Things dramatically changed after the fall of communism in 1989, when new debates on the theme of abortion began. The distribution of the film “the Silent Scream” along with better knowledge on the subject, and also with the teachings of Pope John Paul II, who played an important role in the independence movement made abortion be perceived as a crime (http://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo5_poland.pdf, p. 191)
The moment when everything changed was 1993, when a new law on family planning was adopted, a law that was also sought to protect the human embryo. A legal abortion is now possible only when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, when there are clear indications that the fetus is malformed or when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act.
Abortion in Poland nowadays
The issue of abortion is difficult to approach because of the emotions and contradicting views involved: while the majority agree that the law needs to be changed and that abortion based on socio-economic factors should be approved, studies show that there is a difference of opinion in feelings towards the law on abortions and the abortions themselves. Some people believe that abortion is murder and this might explain lack of action for reform.
Nowadays, the debate is between those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice and so far no agreement has been reached between the two extremes. With regard to the pro-choice standpoint, the first argument in this camp pertains to the woman’s right to self-determination. The second pro-choice argument has to do with her socio-economic background and her inability to raise another/a child and is also related to avoiding illegal abortions which are riskier for her health. When abortion was legalized in Poland during the 1950’s, the reason behind it was that it was needed: a large number of women were dying during underground abortions. But here lies the problem: it was not a right obtained by the women themselves, it had nothing to do with self-determination or any feminist movement, it was simply necessary for the well-being of the entire society. Moreover, the communist egalitarian approach to gender roles provided no actual benefits for the women, as everything was calculated to serve the nation and not certain individuals. The changes took place only in several spheres of the lives of the people, but traditional gender roles had stayed the same and Poland continued to be a patriarchal society. (same thing in Romania, certain rights or benefits were granted, but not because women had fought for them). The fact that women were passive in receiving these “benefits” only means that they had no influence in keeping them and this is exactly what happened later.
The debates that followed after 1990’s focus on the fact that abortion is necessary especially for the impoverished women who will resort to illegal abortions because of a restrictive law that does not allow for a legal one and thus risk their own lives: “Past experiences shows that poor and helpless women will use drastic means [because of the restrictive law]…No one promoting the [anti-abortion] law mentions the easily predictable effect of the law, which will be an increase in infanticide, as was the reality before 1956”. (http://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo5_poland.pdf, p. 191)
The problem with this argument, which is in use even nowadays, is that it reinforces the idea that women are helpless and need protection (a notion that is more beneficial to maintaining patriarchy) and that women who decide to have an abortion and who do not want to use the socio-economic background as a reason are excluded from the equation.
On the other hand, the absence of a rights-based approach for so many years (especially during communism) makes it problematic for such notions to be adopted in present-day Poland, as they have not evolved out of a solid basis. The concept of human rights applied in such a fashion is something that emerged only in the last decade and it still requires time to sink in.
It is also considered that from a historical point of view, the identity of the Polish women became almost synonymous with the fight for independence. They become more than mothers, daughters and wives, they were heroines, especially during the time when Poland was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia (18930-1864). While men were at war, women stayed home, kept the society and the national identity together. During this time the concept of “Mother Pole” has emerged and this legacy of women as “saints” has become a heavy burden; not fulfilling that role was and still is perceived as betraying the family institution as well as the catholic church. (http://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo5_poland.pdf, p. 191)
Abortion in Romania
Before discussing the current situation regarding abortion in Romania, this article will firstly present the historical development of abortion in this state. The victory of Bolshevism in Russia (in 1917) brought with it for the first time in the world a concrete measure of women’s emancipation: the legalization of abortion on demand. This law was in effect for 16 years, until Stalin, in contradiction to the principles he agreed upon 30 years before, forbade abortion. The prime reason for this measure was to counter the low growth of the Soviet population. This law remained in place until his death (1953).
As an Eastern European country, Romania had to abide by Soviet law, a situation that changed when Khruschecev took the power in the Soviet Union. In that period the 1920s law was reinstated. The Romanian government at that time started a pro-soviet propaganda, followed afterwards by the 463 Decree, decree which brought Romania the emancipation much desired. It was this Decree that empowered women and gave them full custody of their own bodies: they could decide if they wanted to keep the baby or not. (http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1936abortion&Year=1936)
After this period, what followed was a decade of abortion that ended in 1966 when Ceaușescu, the president at that time, prohibited it. The reason for taking this measure was rooted in his fears about the impact and popularity of pregnancy terminations in the long run (abortions were more than 1 million a year). He was also preoccupied, just like Stalin, with the demographic phenomena and the nation’s future. Thus the 770/1996 law emerged, which was made to regulate abortions. There were 6 conditions that a pregnant woman had to fulfill in order to get an abortion: if she had at least 4 children (5 starting with 1985); if she was over the age of forty; if she was suffering from a serious disease, which can be transmitted genetically; if she was suffering from a physical disability incompatible with the normal upbringing of a child; if the pregnancy was putting her life at risk; if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. (http://www.ceausescu.org/ceausescu_texts/overplanned_parenthood.htm)
Between the years 1966 and 1989, with few exceptions, abortions were strictly prohibited, and contraception as well. However, illegal abortions continued, despite the legal restrictions applied and the serious consequences on health. This law existed until 1989, when Ceausescu lost power and Romanian legislation was changed, with the introduction of a new law making abortion legal.
Romania is an interesting case to study. It is the only communist country where abortion was prohibited from 1967 to 1989 and which nowadays represents a tragic case. The procedure of having an abortion is a very controversial one, because there are no restrictions concerning the way in which it is performed and the women who go through it do not receive any counseling at any time during this process.
The only institution that is condemning it is the Church, because Christianity sees abortion as one of the biggest sins that one can commit in front of God. The maximum time limit for performing an abortion in Romania is for pregnancies that do not exceed 14 weeks. The abortion is made at the women’s request in a medical institution and according to the law, it can be performed later as well, if it is absolutely necessary for therapeutic reasons. A doctor who performs illegal abortions risks suspension.
In the case of this country, abortion can be considered a contraceptive measure, because Romania is the European member with the highest number of abortions per year. This may lead one to the conclusion that abortion is perceived here as a contraceptive measure and not as an extreme, emergency measure. Having the highest rate of abortion in the EU, it is a paradoxical country, which shifted from one extreme to the other.
Romania has to make changes in its legislation concerning abortion. If a woman wants to have this procedure she should benefit from the best medical care, where she is offered therapy before and after the abortion. One might blame the education system for “the normality” of abortions. If people would be more informed on this topic, than the frequency of abortions would likely diminish.
The two countries are perfect examples of two extreme situations. While in Poland abortion was legalized because of necessity and not because women would have necessarily fought for it, in Romania it was banned because of Ceaușescu’s desire to build a larger nation. The Polish culture was and still is bound to value family traditions, the idea of community and of a unified society and that women are seen as “mothers of the nation.” Moreover, the Nazi regime left deep scars that will take several more years to heal.
Romania is at the other extreme, having for 22 years a dictator with grandiose plans for the country: release it from national debt (at his death, in 1989, Romania had zero national debt), increase the natality and have more citizens who “fight” for the communist cause. In order to achieve these goals, he created a nation of impoverished people, who lived in fear of the system and in fear of each other. The Romanian mothers of the nation were compensated the more children they had. The title of “Heroic Mother” was awarded to the women who had at least ten children and it was accompanied by a monthly subvention of 500 Lei. This honorific distinction was not enough motivation for the impoverished families to have more children and illegal abortion were at its peek during this time. Therefore, when communism fell and all the ideals connected to it were rejected, the notion of “Heroic Mother” had no more value as well.
Although the socio-economic background is fairly similar in the two countries, their extreme approaches to abortion might be a result of two factors. First of all, the way in which the countries put an end to their communist regimes was very different: in Romania, the end of 1989 brought a bloody revolution, followed by Ceaușescu’s execution. The kangaroo trial that the President faced as well as his shooting were broadcasted on national television. Afterwards, Romania had no viable alternative for the communist party, while in Poland, the anti-communist Solidarity Party won the free Polish elections and communism was overthrown in a democratic way. While Romania was in a period of confusion and sunk even deeper in corruption, Poland was finding its way out of the dark times and adopted good, healthy reforms right from the start.
Second of all, while the Orthodox Church was fairly obedient to the communist state, the Catholic Church was a strong advocate for anti-corruption and anti-communism in Poland. Looking at how different cultures deal with the issue of abortion, one obvious pattern is that the strong Catholic Church has a clear say in how the legislation is shaped not only Poland, but all the countries in which it is the national religion.
In Romania, after the fall of the communism, the Orthodox Church – dwarfed by Ceausescu’s regime – started to get strength again, but not enough to impose its views into politics. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II was not only an international figure, but was and still is one of the most beloved people of Poland. He had a great role in the collapse of Communism and therefore, the Catholic religion in itself was regarded as the savior of the nation. Furthermore, since abortion is considered a sin and feminism an attempt to destabilize family life, women’s voices were not heard then and have a hard time being heard nowadays as well.
The two countries have yet to find balance and although they have opposite problems with abortion, it is clear that sexual education needs to be a priority for both of them. Catholic Poland treats sex as a taboo and illegal abortions represent the unseen struggle of Polish women. In Romania on the other hand, the very high number of abortions performed each year shows that people, women and men, are not preoccupied with safe contraception, which also means a lack of concern in regard to the sexually transmitted diseases. Both countries are in a critical time, when things have to change. Only time will tell in what direction things will go and how long it will take to get there.
Data from http://www.indexmundi.com/, last accessed February 2014
Waniek , Danuta. “The Struggle for abortion Rights in Poland”, at
Wistrich S. Robert S. Who’s who in Nazi Germany (New York: Routledge, 2002)
* article updated on 6th of April 2014