By Donella Meadows
–January 26, 1990–
In his wisdom dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided in the mid-1960s that Romania ought to have 25 million people. At the time the population was 19 million. He designated the title “Heroine Mother” for any woman who bore and brought up ten or more children. For seven to nine children a woman won the order of “Maternal Glory.” For five or six children she was given the “Maternity Medal.”
In their wisdom the mothers of Romania, living in cramped quarters with a poor diet and a declining standard of living, decided that, medals or no medals, they could not support large families. They were having on average less than two children apiece. If that reproduction rate continued, Romania’s population would begin to fall.
The pill and the intrauterine device had never been allowed in the country. Other modern means of contraception were essentially unavailable. The women were maintaining their low birth rate with the only option open to them — abortion, which was legal and available on a walk-in basis at any local clinic for a fee of about $2. In 1966 in Romania there were four abortions for every live birth.
In that year, with no warning, Ceausescu issued Decree No. 770 prohibiting abortion. He did nothing to make contraceptives more available. He was not motivated by concern for families or unborn children; he wanted a larger labor force.
In 1967 the Romanian birth rate doubled. Then it started dropping. Within ten years it was nearly as low as it had been before, though there had been no change in policy.
I was in Romania in 1977 as a speaker on world population issues. I was warned that I could talk about the population policy of any country of the world except Romania. Government representatives were with me at all times to see that I followed those directions. But I was determined to learn how Romanian women were controlling their birth rate, when every means of control had been denied them.
Finally, at a crowded party, with my official spies momentarily out of hearing range, I had an opportunity to find out. I was talking to the head of obstetrics at a major Bucharest hospital. I told him I wondered how the birth rate had fallen, and then I asked, “What has happened to your maternal mortality rate?”
He looked straight at me. He got my drift. “It has become very, very high,” he said with great sadness. In nearly every country women who die of complications from abortion, legal or illegal, are listed in health statistics as maternal mortalities. Later I saw some actual figures. As the birth rate came down in Romania after Decree 770, the maternal mortality rate tripled.
Ceausescu’s policy to increase the Romanian population failed to achieve its goal. It imposed pain, injury, and death on Romanian women. It also created another problem, which will be with the country for 80 years or so — the short, sharp baby boom of ’67.
Imagine the strain on obstetrics wards in the year when the birth rate doubled. Imagine the demand for first-grade teachers six years later. The kids born in 1967 either had to put up with extra-large classes throughout their education, or they caused frantic adjustments in the system every year as they advanced. Behind them came more adjustments, as the following cohorts were smaller again. Our own school system had its difficulties with the passage of a smaller and more gradual baby boom; imagine the problems in impoverished, oppressed Romania.
The cohort of ’67 is now 23 years old. It went out to seek jobs long ago (most Romanians leave school at 14). Now these young people are marrying, looking for housing, and beginning to have their own children. Even at the low fertility rate of their society, they will create a smaller “echo boom,” an unusually high number of births simply because of the unusually high number of young families.
Ceausescu is dead, but the cohort of ’67, the longest-lasting of his legacies, will continue to age, eventually to place a huge demand for retirement support and medical care. Their echo-boom progeny will be passing up the age pyramid behind them.
Once of the first changes made in Romania last month when Ceausescu was overthrown by a popular uprising was the legalization of all forms of birth control and of abortion.
Was this column written to defend legal abortion? Or does it illustrate the evil incompetence of communist dictators? Does the Romanian experience teach us about the long-lasting messes that can be made by short-sighted governments — or about the relative power of people over governments — or about the lengths to which women will go to keep control of their own family decisions? I know what moral I draw from this sad story. You can draw your own.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990