In March 2012, two members of the Democratic Liberal Party, with the support of several pro-family Christian associations, proposed a new bill in the Romanian Parliament. If passed, the new law would require any woman seeking an abortion to first attend a “crisis counseling” session. This counseling session would have involved watching videos on the medical procedures, even though this does not comply with the Law of the Patient (which states that the patient has the right not to know the details of the procedure they about to go through). The counseling would have also included asking the patient why they want to terminate the pregnancy, performing a sonogram of the fetus and giving the patient an ultrasound photo or video recording, explaining the risks of an abortion and the post-birth options in the case the woman does not have the financial resources to raise a child.
According to a press release related to the proposed legislation, the bill’s supporters were worried by the “decline due to the weakening of the family and the trivialisation of abortion,” in the context of a “long demographic winter, from which we can only escape through pronatalist policies and by opening our gates to massive immigration.”
This bill (which was not passed) sums up the pronatalist tendencies, including their strong racist and xenophobic accents (“opening the gates to massive immigration”). In the last few years these tendencies have become increasingly visible in the public sphere. After the traumatic experience of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s pronatalist policies, it seemed that the question of banning abortion or limiting abortion rights would never come up again. But the nationalist and racist tendencies supported by both the church and the secular state require control over reproduction, a control through which “white” women are blamed if they do not have children, while the reproduction of Roma women is considered to be dangerous.
By definition, the female body is the medium through which the state regulates reproduction. Social institutions, such as family, school, church and medicine, are used for this purpose. As a result of the complicity of these institutions, the feminine body is transformed into an instrument of supposedly higher purposes, such as god and/or the nation, purposes to which women should cede their right to decide over their own bodies.
Although according to the logic of the pronatalist point of view, women no longer have the right to decide in regards to their own bodies, at the same time, the conditions in which women choose to be mothers (or not) are not brought into the discussion. For example, the unsatisfactory conditions in the maternity wards of state hospitals, the way the city is organised with a total lack of attention towards the needs of mothers with small children, the limited number of places in creches and kindergartens, the attitudes of employers towards women who wish to be mothers (who often lose their jobs after returning from maternity leave), the patriarchal relationships in the majority of families (in which care work is seen as the sole responsibility of women), the financial difficulties that raising a child entails for the majority of the population, the neoliberal pressure to reconcile family life and professional life, etc – all of this is ignored by those wishing to criminalise abortion.
The “dangerous reproduction” of Roma women
In January 2013, an extreme right wing group named the Autonomous Nationalists from Timişoara made an announcement on their website offering 300 Lei to any Roma woman from the Banat region who proves she had submitted to a sterilisation procedure in 2013.
The violence of this gesture is not new. The most persistent image of Roma women in the public sphere reduces them to their reproductive role – a reproduction that is classified as “dangerous.” For example, the Roma woman who is always pregnant and who gives birth without pain, the irresponsible mother who has children to receive child support or to exploit them, and the instrument that leads to the demographic increase of an inferior and dangerous population. All of these images are spread in the public sphere and have found a clear and concise representation in the announcement of the extreme right group mentioned above.
The bodies and fertility of women have always played an important role in racist and xenophobic ideas. The power that women have as a result of their capacity to create other human beings acts as the basis of the racist practices of population control. While “white” middle class women are often shown in the public discourse as “irresponsible” because they delay pregnancy or because they give up maternity in favor of a career, Roma women are blamed precisely for having more children. Roma women are often presented as being more “primitive” and closer to nature, in contrast to the “civilisation” of the majority culture. This “primitivism” is said to lead to their choice to have more children. Racist reasoning such as this ignores the real causes of large family sizes, regardless of the ethnicity of those involved. Poverty, a lack of information about contraceptive methods, and patriarchal relationships within the family often result in the birth of more children.
On the other hand, the conscious choice to have bigger families is applauded if it belongs to a “white” woman. The “natural” character of the choice is celebrated, while the same decision made by a Roma woman (even if she has the economic resources to allow her to adequately support the children) is despised and its “natural” character is presented as being “primitive”. The myth that, soon enough, Roma people will become a majority population in Europe is part of this racist logic.
Beginning in the 1970s Roma women have been forcibly sterilized in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Sweden, Norway. Recent cases (which occurred after the 1990s) have been reported in the Czech Republic. The sterilisations have sometimes occurred without the women’s consent or knowledge. Other times the women were asked for their consent while they were in labour, or shortly before they gave birth, when pain and fear did not allow them to make a rational decision. There have also been cases in which women were misinformed about the consequences and risks of sterilisation, and told that a new pregnancy would put their life in danger. There have also been cases in which women were persuaded through financial means or threats that their social aid would be taken away if they do not agree to their sterilisation, as well as cases in which explicit racial reasons were given by the medical staff when the woman was subjected to sterilisation. Sometimes, women signing the consent forms were not aware of what they were signing. Other times, women who already had other children, were accused of not being able to take care of all their children and were threatened that their children would be taken by the state.
The sterilisation of Roma women is one of the most violent forms of control in the institutionalised racism of women’s bodies. The minority population is represented in these practices as being so “dangerous” and so “degenerate” that measures must be taken so that Roma children won’t be born. These measures translate into actions that affect women in the most direct way.
A discussion between two women, overheard on the street:
“Abortion is a sin, a great sin, because children come from god.”
“And gypsy children?”
“Those come from the devil.”
Eniko Vincze, “Criminalizarea avortului si lipsa justitiei reproductive”, 2012
Carmen Gheorghe / h.arta, “Priveste-ma asa cum sunt. Cuvinte si imagini ale femeilor rome/ Dikh man kada sar sem. Lava aj dikimata le rromnenqe/ See me as I am. Words and images of Roma women”, seemeasiam.wordpress.com, 2010