The Legacy of Romanian Orphanages

My eyes read headlines through layers of experiences not my own. Other places can teach us crucial lessons, and then travel there can make those lessons all the more accessible and compelling. So when I read about threats to reproductive freedom in my own country, I see the phone numbers spray painted in El Salvadoran alleys offering the illegal service, the terror in the eyes of the pregnant teenager in any number of “undeveloped” places, and the abhorrent stories of neglected children that came out of Romania after the fall of the Ceaușescu dictatorship. Those stories are one of the main things people think of when I mention Romania, and it breaks my heart every time.

When Ceaușescu came to power in 1966, his own conservatism joined with Stalin’s assertion that population growth would drive economic growth, so he immediately outlawed abortion, and began a multilayered program to pressure and entice women into having more children. When contraceptives began to be available, he banned those too. The birth rate rose sharply, then slowed a little as women began seeking illegal abortions. No one knows for sure how many women underwent dangerous, too-often fatal procedures on kitchen tables and in dirty alleys, but an estimated 10,000 women died painful, terrified, and deeply unnecessary deaths this way.

(Image from a great article in The Guardian, here)

But the worst part was the children, innocents whose parents were not in a position to care for them, who often ended up in orphanages with horrendous conditions. Estimates begin at 100,000 children, and rise from there. Images of these kids, neglected, abused, and malnourished, stuck in our minds. Thirty years later, that visceral revulsion is still present. This is part of Romanian, European, and human history, and it needs to be remembered.

In remembering history though, we need to be vigilant against the tendency to find single narratives and stop there. The same way it would be foolish to stop studying Germany in 1944, or America in 1865, it would be a mistake to think of Romania as the land of orphanages. What happened when Ceausescu banned abortion is a viciously important lesson on what not to do, but what happened after the regime fell is an equally instructive one for forward progress. Seeing the horrors of the old policy, Romania legalized abortion up to the 14th week and took steps to reduce the need for abortion in the first place, including free contraception and sex education in public schools. The country made rapid and meaningful gains, and moved to the forefront in Eastern Europe.

I’m not including the painful images. But they are out there.

This is even more remarkable when we consider the context, and courage it took. Romania in the 1990s was facing the titanic struggle to build a free, modern nation from the ashes of an oppressive state, which included shaping a new Romanian identity of hope, after the brutal forced homogeneity and pessimism of state communism. You don’t have to look very hard at human history to see the lengths we’ll go to avoid accepting our failures, but Romania acknowledged their failures, took action, and invited international aid in to help redress and heal the abuses.

This improved the lives of innumerable Romanian children, and the country as a whole, but also yielded massive benefits for the wider world in which we all live. In 1989 the world was skeptical of the “soft sciences” that spoke of things like social-emotional needs and health. These were seen as just theory, the stuff of navel-gazing therapists. Then everyone saw the direct evidence of what happened to children left without human touch or affection. The lessons learned from Romanian orphanages spurred the acceptance of the social-emotional sciences and growth in therapeutic procedures that every day are advancing our species into a better age.

Romania, like the US and many other nations, is facing a backlash against reproductive freedom and advances in healthcare and education are being stripped away. Nowhere can the future be taken for granted. But if we have the courage to look, we can see a path into healing.