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State Power and Abortion
Soviet poster warning against midwives performing abortions, circa 1925

State Power and Abortion

The drive to make abortion illegal isn't pro-life. It aims to reshape society using government power.

Daniel Chirot

In 1970 I helped obtain an abortion for a young woman I hardly knew. I was then doing research on Romanian history and living in Bucharest. Because the notorious Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had established a friendly rapport with President Richard Nixon, American scholars were welcome; so, I had been assigned to a prestigious research institute connected to the Central Committee of Romania’s Communist Party. Abortion in Romania was a criminal offense, because Ceaușescu had decreed that Romania’s birth rate was too low and had to be raised to make Romania stronger. There were periodic inspections of female factory workers to check for early pregnancy, in order to prevent early abortions. Birth control devices for medications were prohibited.

Someone I was close to came to me and said that one of her good friends needed an abortion. Her friend was married; but because of the severe housing shortage, she and her student husband lived in a little hallway of her in-laws’ tiny apartment. She was desperate.

I argued that not only was this illegal; it was not even remotely a concern of mine. My friend, however, said that the institute with which I was affiliated had well-connected Communist Party members. Members of the Party’s Central Committee had their own health care system, stores, vacation lodges, and even fresh food unavailable to the general public; they would know how to get a safe abortion. I finally gave in. Sure enough, one of my knowledgeable friends knew of a doctor who practiced in the Central Committee’s hospital and did abortions for Party members and other connected people.

So, it was arranged. I met with the doctor, who asked to be paid in U.S. dollars. I gave him four fifty-dollar bills. The official exchange rate was sixteen Romanian lei to the dollar; but the black market rate, much used by Party members who had permission to travel to Western Europe, was sixty to the dollar. I have no idea if the doctor then changed his dollars into Romanian currency or saved them for a future trip to the West. I never saw him again. The young woman was admitted to the Central Committee’s hospital. The abortion was performed without incident.

I also found out that members of the political elite and their friends in fact had access to birth control, though I was told that the imported Russian-made condoms were unreliable: They tended to break. I never asked what my acquaintances used instead, or if this was just a typical derogatory joke commonly told about all Russian imports.

In 1950, Romania’s fertility rate was 3.26 expected babies per woman, a rate that produced significant population increase. By 1963, the rate had fallen to 2.10—which would barely sustain the population at then-current levels—and was declining. As in many Communist countries, including the Soviet Union, abortion had become a deplorable means of ordinary birth control. Multiple abortions were common.

Ceaușescu, a fervent nationalist, wanted a larger population; so, a 1966 law prohibited almost all abortions. The Romanian fertility rate went up, to 2.83 per woman by 1969. Unfortunately, there were other consequences: poorly performed underground abortions, illnesses, and deaths, especially among poorer women; and unwanted children who were abandoned and dumped into unthinkably awful orphanages. Many of the abandoned children suffered from handicaps ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to malnutrition to psychological trauma. When Ceaușescu and his hated wife were shot and Communism collapsed at the end of 1989, Romania opened its orphanages to permit adoptions by foreigners. Some Americans who wanted to adopt previously unavailable “white” children rushed to claim Romanian orphans. Too many turned out to be badly handicapped, physically and psychologically. That is a whole other tragic story.

By 1989, Romania’s fertility rate had fallen back almost to what it had been before 1966. It is now about average for Europe, between 1.6 and 1.7 per woman. Since many Romanians have been emigrating to Western Europe, however, especially better-educated young people, the Romanian population is declining.

‌ Since 1970, I have never obtained an abortion for anyone else. But in the 1960s, when most abortions in the United States were still illegal, a young woman I knew somewhat got pregnant. Her father, a successful business consultant, sent her to a Caribbean nation where a safe abortion was available for anyone who could pay. Even before that, my father, an anesthesiologist, told me that abortions were performed in his hospital for those who had the means; they were called “dilation and curettage,” a common procedure to test for cancer and potentially other dangerous conditions. During these years, poorer women and those without the right connections also got illegal abortions—too often performed by quacks or by means of harmful substances or in otherwise unhealthy conditions. Such procedures caused serious illness and even death.

For most purposes, comparing the United States with Communist Romania is bizarre; but with abortion, at one time there were strong parallels. Abortion was mostly illegal; but those with means and connections could get safe ones, while others got abortions with often-tragic outcomes, some of them resulting in children who were raised in conditions that did not prepare them for wholesome futures. This had nothing to do with the difference between Communism and capitalism; the laws and ideologies that penalized the less fortunate were different. In Romania it was state nationalism; in the United States, it was a matter of traditional, religiously sanctioned, conservative belief.

But the consequences were notably similar.

Today, America’s cultural-political wars have made abortion rights a crucial testing ground. It now seems likely that most of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which allows abortion of pre-viable fetuses, will be voided in one way or another. What does this make me think in light of my thoughts on pre-Roe America and my long-ago experience in Communist Romania?

Abortion as a political issue in the United States has a long history. Before 1979, Protestant evangelicals generally did not demand that all abortions be prohibited. Instead, fundamentalist and Pentecostal leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson considered abortion acceptable in cases of fetal deformity, rape, incest, or threats to the mother’s life. The Southern Baptist Convention opposed abortion only for “selfish, non-therapeutic reasons.” The abortion question was not a major issue—except for most Catholics. Before Roe, even the very liberal Catholic Senator Ted Kennedy staunchly opposed almost all abortions (he reversed his position after 1973).

What changed to make abortion so controversial? For the political right abortion became a symbol of America’s general moral degeneracy. Opposing abortion became part of a general conservative reaction against the modernizing social trends of the 1960s and 1970s. And it has remained so, with increasing fervor. Religious conservatives who are hostile to women defying traditional gender roles, angry about increasing tolerance of gay rights, and—for many white Southern Baptists still opposed to more rights for non-white ethnic minorities—all see abortion as a kind of cornerstone of all these unwelcome changes. Rolling back Roe has thus become a step towards returning American society to an ideal based on the 1950s, or even earlier.

After Roe in 1973, the rate of reported abortions in the United States increased quickly until the early 1980s. Since then, according to the nonpartisan (but pro-choice) Guttmacher Institute, it has steadily declined throughout the country, in states that try to restrict abortion and those that do not. Better sex education, wider availability of contraception, and perhaps some changes in social mores help explain the decline. As opposed to the practice in some Communist countries, abortion is not and never has been the preferred method of birth control in the United States. But that is not really at the heart of the politics of the matter.

Today, according to Pew Research Institute, 59 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal, either entirely or with few exceptions. Only 39 percent think it should always or almost always be illegal. Majorities of almost every major religious group—including Catholics, though not white evangelical Protestants—believe it should always or almost always be legal; this number includes 63 percent of white non-evangelical Protestants, 54 percent of Black Protestants, 55 percent of Catholics, and 82 percent of the growing number of unaffiliated Americans (now close to 30 percent of the population). In contrast, 77 percent of white evangelicals and about 70 percent of Latter Day Saint members (Mormons), believe abortion should always or almost always be illegal. About 80 percent of those who say they are Democrats or lean Democratic say abortion should always or almost always be legal; but only 35 percent of self-identified Republicans or those leaning Republican say abortion feel the same way.

True, some religious anti-abortion advocates are not interested in the general culture wars; but for most, abortion has become the leading edge of something considerably bigger than just protecting fetal life. The anti-abortion movement is likely to succeed because of the current ultraconservative majorities in many state legislatures and the new majority in the Supreme Court. Such success, however, will be just one step, albeit an important one, in the effort to undo many of the social and political changes of the past six decades and more.

‌I do not want to try to introduce any new findings into the increasingly contentious abortion debate, which is already well covered. But many of us have had at least a passing personal acquaintance with an abortion case, and I would ask readers to consider the issue in a more intimate, humane way.

Whether in Romania in 1970, or in pre-1973 America, a safe abortion was available if you had the needed connections and means. But if a woman was poorer, less educated, or less well connected, she was out of luck: She had to resort to something dangerous or bear the consequences of an unwanted child. As for those consequences, it is astounding that politicians allied with the anti-abortion movement do not favor more money for child care or funding for organizations that promote better sex education and more available contraception. Like protection of fetal life, the health of mothers and children is not the point.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, under Republican presidents over the past twenty years, sex education emphasizing complete abstinence—which has been shown to be ineffective—has increased; under Democratic presidents, it has decreased, while information about contraception has been better funded.

Radical anti-abortion sentiment in the United States has greatly restricted abortions in conservative states and led to the bizarre Texas law encouraging individuals to sue any abortion provider who aborts a fetus further along than six weeks, when many pregnant women do not yet know they are pregnant. To me, that level of punitiveness begins to resemble the sinister Ceaușescu policy of intruding into personal lives to enforce a drastic policy designed to change society.

Communism began as an ideology seeking radical progress forced on conservative societies through violent means; but, once in power, first in the Soviet Union, then in Eastern Europe, the state pivoted to re-emphasize conservative personal morality, obedience to elites and authority, and traditional cultural norms. The process is repeating itself in China, with its recent push to raise birth rates. Will it work? If Romania is any guide, it will not.

It is more than slightly ironic that the radical anti-abortion movement in the United States seeks to use state power to achieve reactionary social change, much as Communist Romania did. In one case, it was a petrified Marxist ideology-become-nationalist-social-conservatism that sought to push society towards an unobtainable socialist ideal. In the United States, the ideology is ostensibly very different: a punitive religious doctrine that seeks its own vision of an ideal society. Still, the outcomes are remarkably similar: Only the most vulnerable get hurt, and the ideal society remains as out-of-reach as ever.

Think about today’s many other forms of reactionary religious ideology. The most ultra-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Hindus have this in common: Repress women, roll back liberating social change, and demand obedience to authoritarian rules. The drive to end abortion is much more than being “pro-life.” It aims to reshape society on behalf of a minority that seeks to impose its ideology on the majority, and to use every possible means of government power to do so.

Daniel Chirot, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is the Emeritus Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Public domain image,