The publication of a paper on the consequences of Ceauşescu’s attempt to ban abortion in Romania is a stark reminder of what happens when women are prevented from accessing means that are safe and legal to end problem pregnancies. In short, they end their pregnancies using means that are unlawful and/or unsafe, sometimes with tragic consequences. More than 9,000 women died between 1965 and 1989 due to complications arising from illegal abortions.
Although it’s difficult to compare any country today with the repressive, restrictive climate of Romania in the 1960s and 70s, a reminder of the contribution that adequate birth control, including abortion, makes to women’s health is important. Politicians in Ireland – and the UK, since abortion is still outlawed in the Northern Ireland counties that it governs – would do well to take note.
The recent death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied a pregnancy termination in Ireland, has rocked that country and focused international attention on its abortion ban. One might ask why, when one considers Romania, there have not been more deaths in Ireland? The answer is simple. Although abortion is unlawful in Ireland, Irish women have been able to develop their own ways of accessing services.
For thousands of Irish women, the path to an abortion involves a relatively cheap flight to Britain and treatment provided by a not-for-profit clinic run by a charity. At British Prenancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinics, especially in Liverpool, Birmingham and London, Irish visitors are so “normal” that we provide a special range of literature explaining how to care for themselves as they travel home.
Other women rely on the internet to obtain medicines that are safe for them to use but illegal to obtain. Clearly, there are risks with internet supply. You might not receive what you ordered; fake medication is at least as common as knock-off designer shoes or handbags, and the effects are serious. At best, it does nothing.
Sites such as Women on Web have become a vital source of safe medication for women living where safe, legal abortion is unavailable. And the widespread availability of the abortifacient (ie, causing an abortion) misoprostol as treatment for gastric ulcers is another lifeline, especially where it is available in local pharmacies.
Women still die from abortion bans. International agencies publish estimates routinely. Governments record their horror and pledge to make motherhood safer. At a London summit on family planning in July, the prime minister responded to estimates that an unplanned pregnancy is conceived every 10 seconds by announcing £500m in aid to increase international access to contraceptives. He told government representatives from around the world: “Women should be able to decide freely, and for themselves, whether, when and how many children they have … When a woman is prevented from choosing when to have children it’s not just a violation of her human rights, it can fundamentally compromise her chances in life, and the opportunities for her children.”
Yet in Northern Ireland and Ireland, women are denied that choice because they are denied access to abortion.
European politicians find it easy to understand the importance of safe contraception and abortion in countries far away. They find it less easy to understand the importance of reproductive choice in their own countries – although it would be far easier for them to effect it.
Romania is a good European example of why abortion bans should be regarded as being as perverse and as archaic as the rest of Ceauşescu’s policies.
On abortion, we should study Romanian history.