Demographic Policy

Demographic Policy

With a political system in place that made long-range planning the cornerstone of economic growth, demographic trends took on particular significance. As development proceeded, so did disturbing demographic consequences. It soon became apparent that the country was approaching zero population growth, which carried alarming implications for future labor supplies for further industrialization. The government responded in 1966 with a decree that prohibited abortion on demand and introduced other pronatalist policies to increase birthrates. The decree stipulated that abortion would be allowed only when pregnancy endangered the life of a woman or was the result of rape or incest, or if the child was likely to have a congenital disease or deformity. Also an abortion could be performed if the woman was over forty-five years of age or had given birth to at least four children who remained under her care. Any abortion performed for any other reason became a criminal offense, and the penal code was revised to provide penalties for those who sought or performed illegal abortions.

Other punitive policies were introduced. Men and women who remained childless after the age of twenty-five, whether married or single, were liable for a special tax amounting to between 10 and 20 percent of their income. The government also targeted the rising divorce rates and made divorce much more difficult. By government decree, a marriage could be dissolved only in exceptional cases. The ruling was rigidly enforced, as only 28 divorces were allowed nationwide in 1967, compared with 26,000 the preceding year.

Some pronatalist policies were introduced that held out the carrot instead of the stick. Family allowances paid by the state were raised, with each child bringing a small increase. Monetary awards were granted to mothers beginning with the birth of the third child. In addition, the income tax rate for parents of three or more children was reduced by 30 percent.

Because contraceptives were not manufactured in Romania, and all legal importation of them had stopped, the sudden unavailability of abortion made birth control extremely difficult. Sex had traditionally been a taboo subject, and sex education, even in the 1980s, was practically nonexistent. Consequently the pronatalist policies had an immediate impact, with the number of live births rising from 273,687 in 1966 to 527,764 in 1967--an increase of 92.8 percent. Legal abortions fell just as dramatically with only 52,000 performed in 1967 as compared to more than 1 million in 1965. This success was due in part to the presence of police in hospitals to ensure that no illegal abortions would be performed. But the policy's initial success was marred by rising maternal and infant mortality rates closely associated with the restrictions on abortion.

The increase in live births was short-lived. After the police returned to more normal duties, the number of abortions categorized as legal rose dramatically, as did the number of spontaneous abortions. The material incentives provided by the state, even when coupled with draconian regulation and coercion, were not enough to sustain an increase in birthrates, which again began to decline. As the rate of population growth declined, the government continued efforts to increase birthrates. In 1974 revisions in the labor code attempted to address the problem by granting special allowances for pregnant women and nursing mothers, giving them a lighter work load that excluded overtime and hazardous work and allowed time off to care for children without loss of benefits.

The Ceausescu regime took more aggressive steps in the 1980s. By 1983 the birthrate had fallen to 14.3 per 1,000, the rate of annual increase in population had dipped to 3.7 per 1,000, and the number of abortions (421,386) again exceeded the number of live births (321,489). Ceausescu complained that only some 9 percent of the abortions performed had the necessary medical justification. In 1984 the legal age for marriage was lowered to fifteen years for women, and additional taxes were levied on childless individuals over twenty-five years of age. Monthly gynecological examinations for all women of childbearing age were instituted, even for pubescent girls, to identify pregnancies in the earliest stages and to monitor pregnant women to ensure that their pregnancies came to term. Miscarriages were to be investigated and illegal abortions prosecuted, resulting in prison terms of one year for the women concerned and up to five years for doctors and other medical personnel performing the procedure. Doctors and nurses involved in gynecology came under increasing pressure, especially after 1985, when "demographic command units" were set up to ensure that all women were gynecologically examined at their place of work. These units not only monitored pregnancies and ensured deliveries but also investigated childless women and couples, asked detailed questions about their sex lives and the general health of their reproductive systems, and recommended treatment for infertility.

Furthermore, by 1985 a woman had to have had five children, with all five still under her care, or be more than forty-five years old to qualify for an abortion. Even when an abortion was legally justified, after 1985 a party representative had to be present to authorize and supervise the procedure. Other steps to increase material incentives to have children included raising taxes for childless individuals, increasing monthly allowances to families with children by 27 percent, and giving bonuses for the birth of the second and third child.

Although government expenditures on material incentives rose by 470 percent between 1967 and 1983, the birthrate actually decreased during that time by 40 percent. After 1983, despite the extreme measures taken by the regime to combat the decline, there was only a slight increase, from 14.3 to 15.5 per 1,000 in 1984 and 16 per 1,000 in 1985. After more than two decades of draconian anti- abortion regulation and expenditures for material incentives that by 1985 equalled half the amount budgeted for defense, Romanian birthrates were only a fraction higher than those rates in countries permitting abortion on demand.

Romanian demographic policies continued to be unsuccessful largely because they ignored the relationship of socioeconomic development and demographics. The development of heavy industry captured most of the country's investment capital and left little for the consumer goods sector. Thus the woman's double burden of child care and full-time work was not eased by consumer durables that save time and labor in the home. The debt crisis of the 1980s reduced the standard of living to that of a Third World country, as Romanians endured rationing of basic food items and shortages of other essential household goods, including diapers. Apartments were not only overcrowded and cramped, but often unheated. In the face of such bleak conditions, increased material incentives that in 1985 amounted to approximately 3.61 lei per child per day--enough to buy 43 grams of preserved milk--were not enough to overcome the reluctance of Romanian women to bear children.

In 1989 abortion remained the only means of fertility control available to an increasingly desperate population. The number of quasi-legal abortions continued to rise, as women resorted to whatever means necessary to secure permission for the procedure. Women who failed to get official approval were forced to seek illegal abortions, which could be had for a carton of Kent cigarettes.

Despite the obvious reluctance of women to bear children because of socioeconomic conditions, the Ceausescu regime continued its crusade to raise birthrates, using a somewhat more subliminal approach. In 1986 mass media campaigns were launched, extolling the virtues of the large families of the past and of family life in general. Less subtle were the pronouncements that procreation was the patriotic duty and moral obligation of all citizens. The campaign called for competition among judete (counties) for the highest birthrates and even encouraged single women to have children despite the fact that illegitimacy carried a considerable social stigma.

The new approach, like previous attempts, met with little success. In early 1988, demographic policies were again on the political drawing board, as the Political Executive Committee of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) ordered the Ministry of Health to produce a "concrete program" for increasing the birthrate. The regime's drastic and even obsessive response to the low birthrates appears to have been unwarranted. Death rates steadily declined during this period, and in 1965, when the crusade began, there was little evidence of an impending demographic crisis. Romania's rate of natural population increase of 6 per 1,000 was considerably higher than that of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) at 3 per 1,000 and Hungary's 2.4 per 1,000. In 1984 Romania compared even more favorably with a rate of natural increase of 3.9 per 1,000 as opposed to East Germany's 0.4 and Hungary's -2 per 1,000.


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