A small amount of aid will prevent much human suffering. Nicolae Ceausescu is dead, but his reign of terror still haunts Romanian society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of family planning.
Ceausescu outlawed abortion and all forms of contraception for women who had not borne at least five children. Married women who had not had at least one child by the age of twenty-four faced substantial tax penalties. The Securitate, Ceausescu's secret police, routinely inspected women in hospitals and sent doctors into the workplace, searching for signs of contraceptive use or attempts to induce abortion or miscarriage.
Unable to feed themselves or their families, Romanian couples often had no choice but to abandon children, leaving them to the care of already overcrowded, understaffed orphanages. Others defied Ceausescu's ban and risked their lives attempting self-induced abortions. The lengths that women went to, the methods that were used and the gruesome conditions under which abortions were performed stagger the imagination.
Today, Bucharest's orphanages are overflowing with malnourished children, some of whom suffer from the effects of frostbite because there has been no fuel to heat their rooms. Some die of starvation and some have AIDS, infected by a contaminated blood supply and reused needles. Ceausescu's policies resulted in infant mortality rates that are among the highest in the world. So many children died shortly after birth that to mask a staggering infant mortality rate babies were not given birth certificates unless they had survived for three months.
Ceausescu's policies also resulted in some of the world's highest maternal mortality rates. One mother of three, knowing that she and her husband could not feed any morechildren and well aware of the appalling conditions in the orphanages, induced abortion on three separate occasions. Each time, she fought off infection and escaped with her life. After her fourth attempt, she arrived at the hospital with a severe infection and bleeding badly. She would not tell the doctors what poisons she took to induce the abortion, and she died as they futilely tried to save her life, leaving three more children tothe care of the orphanages.
One of the first acts of the new regime in Romania was to overturn the ban on abortion and contraception, but the suffering persists. Kidney failure and sterility, the tragic result of thousands abortions attempted in unsanitary conditions, are commonplace in Romania's hospitals. There are hundreds of women lining up for abortions daily. Rescinding Ceausescu's policies may have helped reduce the number of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths, but little is being done to help women avoid unwanted pregnancy. Hospitals are so poorly stocked with contraceptives that women receive abortions but have no means to prevent another pregnancy, with abortion remaining their only birth control option. Surely nobody believes that abortion should be an individual's sole method of family planning, let alone an entire nation's.
Romanian health workers recently formed the Family Planning Association of Romania. In conjunction with the Ministry of Health, they are prepared to provide family planning eduction and training, but there is a desperate need for contraceptive supplies.
Without the resources Romania desperately needs, unwanted pregnancy, abandoned children, and multiple abortions will remain tragic facts of life. Two population assistance organizations, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) have already begun to support the efforts of Romanian health officials to address the family planning needs of the Romanian people. Yet, because of insufficient supplies and an underdeveloped infrastructure to deliver services, both acknowledge that even their most optimistic programs will meet only a fraction of Romania's needs.
This week the House will consider an amendment to the foreign aid bill to provide $1 million in family planning assistance for Romania. These funds will be channeled through IPPF and UNFPA, the only major family planning organizations that do work in Romania. In the past, President Bush has opposed any funding for these organizations because these groups do not preclude working with family planning programs that use non-U.S. funds to provide abortion services.
After a decade of absence from leadership on international family planning efforts, the United States has an opportunity to provide a small sum of money that will have an enormous impact in relieving human suffering. It will help the Romanian people build an infrastructure for health care services, potentially reducing their need for future foreign aid. All of the United States' international family planning policies of the last decade have been aimed at disassociating the United States from any organization that permits abortions. Ironically, failing now to provide ample funding for family planning in Romania will actually sustain, and perhaps even increase, the number of abortions performed. How can U.S. policies be more paradoxical than this?
Chet Atkins is a Democratic representative from Massachusetts. Gabriela Bocec is vice president of the newly formed Family Planning Association of Romania and president of the Romanian Nurses' Association.