How Banning Abortion Will Transform America

Across the United States, Republican-controlled legislatures are outlawing abortion, with the hope of bringing the issue before a sympathetic Supreme Court. If they succeed in revoking women’s reproductive rights, the US will quickly become a different society – one resembling communist-era Romania.

HUNEDOARA, ROMANIA – “It was a horrible time,” recounts one Romanian gynecologist, referring to the period between 1966 and 1990, when abortion and contraception were completely banned under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Women refused to have sexual lives, resulting in family fights and abandonment,” she continued. “For a woman, any sexual contact meant only panic and pain.” As another Romanian who lived through the period put it, “It was impossible to have a normal sexual life because of fear of getting pregnant.” 
If the Republican Party in the United States has its way, millions of American women could soon come to know the same fear. Republican lawmakers in GeorgiaAlabama, and other states have enacted or are proposing outright abortion bans, hoping to bring the issue back before a sympathetic US Supreme Court and overturn or further gut the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In the absence of Roe’s constitutional protection of a woman’s right to have an abortion, America would become a different society, because, as in Ceaușescu-era Romania, the government would police its members’ most personal choices.
It wasn’t only women who suffered from the Ceaușescu regime’s attacks on their bodily integrity. Far from strengthening the family, Romania’s draconian “pro-life” policies
  • poisoned heterosexual intimacy,
  • strained marriages, and
  • weakened social trust.

Monthly gynecological exams brought the state inside women’s uteruses and, by extension, into the bedroom. State surveillance of sexual activity resembled that of a farmer breeding livestock. With provisions prohibiting women from going out of state for an abortion, or from using certain contraceptive methods (such as intrauterine devices), much of the new US legislation, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would expose women to a similar enforcement regime.

After the Ceaușescu regime fell in December 1989, one of the interim Romanian government’s first moves was to decriminalize abortion. While debates about many aspects of the communist legacy soon erupted, few Romanians had any doubt that forcing women to have babies they didn’t want had been disastrous for the country.

Even after three decades under the ban, Romania’s birth rate had not increased. Instead, Romanian women had undergone nearly 7.3 million back-alley abortions – an average of three apiece – between 1967 and 1989. At least 15,000 women died as a result of complications and untreated side effects. Romania’s infant-mortality rate during this period was the highest in Europe, and anywhere from two to 59 times above that of other countries.

Though most Eastern Bloc countries expanded women’s reproductive freedoms after Stalin’s death in 1953, by the late 1960s, communist leaders began to worry that declining birth rates would lead to future labor shortages. But while other East European countries addressed the issue through longer paid maternity leaves and higher child-care benefits, the Romanian government took a different path.

Prior to 1966, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world. But, desperate for population growth, Ceaușescu issued Decree 770, essentially nationalizing Romanian women’s wombs. Both abortion and contraception were criminalized for all women age 45 and under who had not borne at least four children (later increased to five). The only exceptions were for rape and incest, high-risk pregnancies, and cases in which the fetus could contract a hereditary disease from either parent. The law was strictly enforced. The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, registered suspected pregnancies and kept tabs on women until the birth of the child. It was the kind of natalist authoritarianism that US “pro-life” advocates have long dreamed of.

With challenges to Roe looming on the horizon, and with many US states having already denied access to abortion facilities and reproductive health services through other means, Romania’s experience shows what happens when women suddenly lose the right to control their own bodies. Without reproductive freedom, heterosexual sex turns into a game of “Russian roulette” for women, because they quite literally bear the consequences of any liaison. Indeed, Alabama’s new law goes further than Ceaușescu’s Romania, by eliminating even the exception for rape or incest.

Abortion opponents claim that banning it will

  • promote marriage,
  • strengthen families, and
  • restore traditional gender roles.

But the Romanian case shows that a more likely scenario is a

  • rapid increase in maternal mortality, an
  • explosion of unwanted children and orphans, and
  • a “sex recession,” as wives choose to avoid intimacy with their husbands altogether.

As in Romania, the state’s violent intrusion into the private sphere will upset the lives of men and women alike. Americans can look forward to a future of bad sex and wrecked relationships.

It’s time to face facts. A century of evidence from around the world shows that coercive reproduction policies correlate weakly with actual fertility rates. The fact is that women’s decisions about family size are based on material realities. When basic food supplies are scarce (as in Romania in the 1980s), women will risk their lives having back-alley abortions, for fear of lacking the means to care for a child. Where paid parental leave and childcare are absent or prohibitively expensive, as they are in the US, women will make similar economic choices, regardless of the laws on the books.

After communism, Romania’s people recognized that democratic societies have a responsibility to guarantee women’s bodily autonomy, and to respect the right of all citizens to make their own decisions about whether and when to start or add to a family. It is odd that in the “land of the free,” one of the major parties would emulate a communist dictator.

 

Want More Babies? You Need Less Patriarchy

In the United States, where fertility has been below replacement for about a decade, the average woman now has 1.77.

.. Perhaps the United States is becoming more like the rest of the industrialized world, where declining birthrates are correlated with a lack of support for working mothers.

.. Developed countries that prioritize gender equality — including Sweden, Norway and France — have higher fertility rates than those that don’t.

.. The world’s lowest fertility rates are in countries that are economically developed but socially conservative, where women have professional opportunities but must shoulder most of the burdens of domestic life.

.. Peter McDonald theorized that if women have educational and employment opportunities nearly equal to those of men, “but these opportunities are severely curtailed by having children, then, on average, women will restrict the number of children that they have

.. in Sweden, women were more likely to have a second child if their male partner took paternity leave with their first child, a proxy for his willingness to share the work of parenting.

.. In Hungary, she told me, couples that shared housework equally had a higher probability of having a second kid.

.. This correlation between feminist social policy and higher fertility is widely recognized throughout the world

..  “feminism is the new natalism.”

.. fertility rates, after reaching a low of around 1.7 children per woman in 1976, rose over the next 30 years, even as Europe’s fertility fell.

.. There were several reasons for this, including substantial levels of Hispanic immigration, a high teen birthrate, and, some speculated, America’s exceptional religiosity.

Since then, however, the teen birthrate in the United States has fallen to an all-time low, Americans have become less religious, Hispanic immigration has slowed, and Hispanic fertility rates have declined.
.. rising cost of child care
.. If my theory is right, though, it will keep falling unless America invests in paid family leave and subsidized, high-quality child care
.. if a shrinking number of workers must support a growing elderly population, even our threadbare social safety net will be strained.
.. survey data shows that women actually desire more kids than they’re having.
.. the “gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”
.. One lesson of cratering fertility rates is that in the modern world, patriarchy is maladaptive.