This non-fiction piece describes events that took place in the mid-eighties in Communist Romania when both abortion and contraception were illegal. The Communist dictator, Ceausescu, took this decision after returning from a trip in China, when he concluded that he was too great a president for such a small country, and an increase in population was necessary. The poem used as a motto here was very famous at the time and its author was taken away the right to publish.
An entire nation“The Children’s Crusade” by Ana Blandiana (translated from the Romanian by Alta Ifland)
As yet unborn
Yet condemned to be born,
Fetus by fetus,
An entire nation
Doesn’t hear, doesn’t see, doesn’t get it,
But carries on
Through squirming female bodies,
Through the blood of mothers
No one bothered to ask.
I don’t remember what year of college it was. Was I a freshman? A sophomore? I really cannot remember. But I know I was in college, and that year, all female students—who, in the College of Philology, outnumbered by far the male students—were told that they were not allowed to take their exams unless they presented proof that they had undergone the obligatory gynecological exam the female population was subjected to. Women who were employed—and almost all adult women were—were forced to go to regular checkups through their workplace, but, until then, students had somehow managed to dodge that. Until someone from a high position of authority found a solution—someone, very likely, endowed with two balls and a penis, and who was, therefore, exempt from such exams (unless the order came from the dictator’s wife herself)—and now, as I walked into the exam room (not the gynecological exam, the exam for French literature), I wondered which of the students would have their “proof,” and which of the professors would ask for it.
It was a beautiful, high-ceilinged room with dark paneled wood all around in an elegant, nineteenth-century building, which, like most old buildings, was very cold. The natural coolness of such a place was exacerbated by the endemic lack of heating during those years, which meant that in winter we had to wear our coats inside, and steam came out of our mouths as we debated the difference between symbolism and the decadent movement or mal de siècle. I should add that at the time, students had to spend most of the day in those cold halls because we had forty contact hour per week—a way of making sure we were all accounted for, and not up to God-knows-what—and by the time classes were over, we were like frozen twigs that could snap if you just touched them.
But this must have happened in spring because it wasn’t too cold. I walked up to the long desk on the podium behind which sat two or three professors from our department, the chair included, all women. In front of me there were two other female students. The first student took a small piece of paper from her schoolbag and gave it to the department chair, a woman in her early forties, who gave a satisfactory nod, and then she, the professor, gave the young woman another piece of paper. So many years have passed and some details have been erased by time, so I don’t remember why those strips of paper were so small (literally, about two square inches or so); all I remember is that the first piece was the “proof,” and the second one contained the subject of the exam (it was an oral exam, so it was a different topic for each of us).
The first woman in line and the department chair had done their paper exchange. The next woman in front of me—I don’t recall her name, but I can still see her face, a large, open face with long, light brown hair—stood in front of the professors and, showing her empty hand, explained that she had nothing against the exam (the gynecological exam, not the French one), but had refused to subject herself to it because she’d heard from students in other colleges that they had gotten infected with STDs from the gynecologist who had examined dozens of students one after another without gloves. Her statement, which had been made without resentment, only with a certain negative energy, was followed by an uncomfortable silence, which was ended by the department chair. She was not sympathetic to what she had just heard. She mumbled something dismissive and said that she would allow the student to take the exam (the French one), but she still had to undergo the other exam. When it was my turn, I extended my empty hand toward the chair’s in order to take the piece of paper with the subject. She looked inquisitively at my hand and I stared at her blankly. For a few seconds no one said anything. Would she dare ask for it? She did. Reader, I am trying to give you as true an account as possible, so I must admit that I don’t remember exactly what I said. All I know is that I let her understand I had no “proof” and no intention of getting one. She repeated what she had told the other student, this time in a more aggressive tone, and on that condition only she allowed me to take the exam.
Now, you are probably applauding my “courage,” thinking, Good for her, she “resisted,” etc. Oh, you are so wonderfully naïve! So, wonderfully, Americanly naïve! Let me just add that in those days failing an exam meant repeating the entire year, and my parents would have never accepted, or been able to afford, that. And, in the event that I had been expelled from college, I would have had to take a job, which would have brought me in the end to the same gynecological table.
We all went together. We were rounded up in class—it was a class of literature, not French literature, something else, but, to be honest, I prefer to avoid being more precise here in case the professor in question ever stumbles upon this piece, which is unlikely, but you never know. The door opened suddenly, and the department chair came in and notified us that the class was going to be suspended and we were all going to go to the gynecological exam, together with the professor. This announcement provoked an audible gasp among the students, who began a heated discussion with the chair. As the female students voiced disagreement, I watched out of the corner of my eye the male professor whose class had been interrupted. He was a man in his late forties, a famous scholar in his field whom I respected and even liked as a person. As the female students were trying to decide what was worse, to lose a whole year and even risk being expelled from college, or get an STD, the professor had taken a nail file from his pocket and was busily filing his nails.
Eventually, we all went—the docile ones who had accepted the situation from the very beginning without question, as well as the rebels, who had initially declared that they would rather be expelled than subject themselves to this. And the professor too. We were about twenty girls or so. Twenty girls and a male professor walking down the downtown streets toward the University clinic as if on a field trip. It was a beautiful, late spring day and we too were beautiful in our early summer, colorful dresses.
We arrived at the clinic and for several minutes stood in front of the building, still trying to negotiate a way out of it. Again, the professor took his nail file out of his pocket and got busy. Around him, a bunch of young women blabbered about the lower parts of their bodies, while the male professor was…well, what could he have done, really? We entered the clinic.
The hall was full of young women and every several minutes the exam-room door opened to reveal a short, portly man with the face of a badger—oh, I remember him well, yes, I do! He was the only gynecologist for the entire clinic, and he had to examine thousands of young women within a few weeks. He did not wear gloves. In his defense: where could he have found them? In those years, a handful of doctors in the entire country had gloves—those who worked for the nomenklatura. Health care was free (that is, if you don’t count the bribes one had to pay for everything, the cigarettes, the coffee, the meat, the soap one could find only on the black market, and which could add up quickly to a monthly income), but it came without gloves, anesthesia, or medication. There was no gynecological table either. Instead, a chair served the purpose, one of those uncomfortable student wooden chairs with metallic legs. Honestly, I don’t recall where the women were supposed to place their legs because by the time my turn came, the man was so behind schedule the exam consisted of a … breast exam.
This was the scene: several, maybe four or five, students were shoved into the room, and there, they took their shirts and bras off, and the doctor … here, I am not sure what word to use: “examined” would be the appropriate one in such a situation, except that what he did had nothing to do with what a breast exam normally consists of. The doctor touched the women’s breasts, he touched them in a way that was both pro-forma and obscene—I know, a contradiction, but this is what it seemed like: the man had to fulfill his workload, and since the number of patients was so large, the only way to do it was perfunctorily. But how perfunctory can a gynecological exam be, after all? Just waiting for all those women to undress would take forever, so the “breast exam” was, obviously, the best alternative. Eventually, we each got our little piece of paper and took it to our French exams.
Now, you may wonder: but what was the point of the exam? Wasn’t the (obligatory) gynecological exam done in order to reveal a possible pregnancy? Sure. Then, what’s the point of a breast exam if it cannot reveal a pregnancy? Well, that is, again, a wonderfully naïve question. I failed to explain that all this took place in the mid to late eighties in Romania during Communism, and one thing specific to Communism is that everything functions so poorly at all levels that even repressive policies can only be partially enforced because of overall inefficiency. So, the next year when we showed up for our oral exams, some female students had the tiny piece of paper from the doctor, others didn’t. This time, some of the professors admonished the rebellious students, others simply shrugged their shoulders.
It’s not just that abortion was illegal—there was no contraception available whatsoever. And yet, women refused to give birth. They inserted hangers and wires inside their uteruses, they died by the dozens of thousands, they went to prison, and even when they carried their pregnancies to term, their bodies rebelled against birth—yes, I remember discussions with doctors at the time, who claimed that a strange phenomenon was happening, that a suspiciously high number of women wouldn’t dilate properly when giving birth.
I remember an aunt of mine who, for several weeks walked around with a tube inserted in her uterus: she went to work, washed dishes and chatted, all the while hosting that alien thing inside her body until one day a piece of bloody flesh fell in her underwear together with the tube. She took a break, went to the bathroom and returned several minutes later to resume working in the kitchen, after discreetly dumping a small package in the trash. I remember conversations between my mother—my mother who was, and still is, like most Romanians, quite religious—and female neighbors, or mothers of childhood friends.
“How many did you have?” (Mother)
“Thirteen. And you?” (Neighbor)
I am not going to tell you how many abortions my mother had—it was less than the neighbor, but still, quite a high number. The same question, addressed to the mother of my best childhood friend elicited the answer “Almost forty.” You may find this hard to believe, but think about it: if you are sexually active for, say, thirty-five years until you reach menopause, and during this time you have no contraceptive means available, and your husband has no sexual education, forty pregnancies sounds quite plausible. But can you wrap your head around the life of a woman who undergoes more than one abortion every year, each time in secrecy, never knowing whether she’ll succeed or end up in prison? Can you see the life of this woman, what she must feel when her husband comes near her at night, the never-ending, gnawing worry, can you see this life? Can you see the lives of millions of women, “the blood of mothers/No one bothered to ask”?
I wrote this story after many states in the Trump administration began adopting anti-abortion legislation, which, like many other recent events, brought back memories from Communist Romania. When you read this piece think how easy it is to make anyone, university professors included, accept the unacceptable. And next time you feel tempted to praise free healthcare in Cuba or any other Communist country, remember that healthcare in the above story was free too. The lack of gloves and medical equipment weren’t due to a “crisis”—this is how we lived for almost half a century.
Header photo by Scott Edelman.
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