I’ve been watching with horror and disbelief the debates in the US state of Virginia about a proposed new federal law which would mandate that all women wishing to have an abortion, regardless of the reason, would first have to have an ultrasound scan. Given that many abortions take place before 12 weeks, when it is difficult to detect a foetus using transabdominal ultrasound, this effectively mandates the use of transvaginal ultrasound, a considerably more invasive procedure, whether or not the woman consents to this. There has been a lot of debate about how this wrests control of reproductive choices from women, referred to by some commentators as “state-sanctioned rape”, and in effect “dictating a medical procedure to a physician”. There are a couple of articles here and here with more detail.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, where in 2011 the government tried to introduce anti-abortion legislation using EU funds earmarked for gender equality projects (see here and here), a renowned obstetrician and midwife who has for some years championed home births in Hungary had her appeal against imprisonment not only refused, but her ban on practice lengthened. There is background to the case of Dr Agnes Gereb here and a Guardian report of her unsuccessful appeal here. Home birth is not illegal in Hungary; however it appears that legislators are fearful of an intervention which, in the case of women of low obstetric risk, is at least as safe (and in many cases arguably safer) than hospital births, and this state-sanctioned censuring of the choice to give birth at home is another attempt to reign in choice and increase control over reproduction.
These depressing stories put me in mind of my PhD research, which looked at sexual and reproductive health in Romania and Moldova. Romania in particular had particularly repressive policies around reproduction during the communist era, particularly under Ceausescu – from 1966 abortions were outlawed in all but certain restrictive circumstances, and whilst not banned all methods of contraception were very difficult to obtain, and propaganda against hormonal contraception in particular was so strong and all-pervasive that more than two decades after the end of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania there is still a deep-seated suspicion of it, amongst both public and the medical profession. Women were subject to compulsory gynaecological examinations, doctors and women performing or requesting abortions risked imprisonment and official figures suggest that between 1966-1989 nearly 10,000 women died from the complications from illegal abortions (the real figure is undoubtedly higher, as many deaths will have been illictly recorded as being from other reasons). One of the legacies of this state-sanctioned interference in women’s fertility and reproduction is an ongoing suspicion in Romania of any governmental attempts to promote any national campaign relating to sexual and reproductive health (a recent example would be the disastrous and failed campaign in 2009 to vaccinate school girls against Human Papilloma Virus).
I would recommend anybody who is interested in the consequences of extreme pronatalist and anti-choice legislation read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity. This is a masterly, seminal book about Romanian reproductive policy under Ceausescu which details the inevitable outcome of banning abortion, making contraception in effect unavailable, and seeking to control fertility and reproduction so ruthlessly. Policy makers in Virginia in particular, but also elsewhere including Hungary, would do well to learn its lessons.