As Americans face the loss of abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, women who have lived under abortion bans in Europe share their stories.
Amelia Lake | firstname.lastname@example.org
“I was aware of it, vaguely. You wouldn’t hear a whole lot of talk about things. You really wouldn't hear it on the news. You probably wouldn't read much about it in newspapers. The main thing that made me realize the extent of what was going on was the referendum with divorce and abortion on the same ticket, and knowing most people in Ireland wouldn’t vote for either.”
M, who has asked me not to share her name, is from the Republic of Ireland, where abortion was all but entirely illegal until 2016. Post-independence Ireland was socially and politically dominated by the Catholic Church, which considers abortion to be a mortal sin, among the worst offenses an individual can commit. Church rule was draconian. “You would not have talked about abortion or birth control,” says M. “Doctors weren’t allowed to prescribe birth control, especially to unmarried women.” Reflecting Catholic teachings on sexuality, contraception was prohibited until 1980, at which point it was often authorized only for married couples.
“It was just such a repressive country for so long,” M says. “And the Church is the key factor in this. I remember being too young to vote, but angry that people in power thought this was okay.”
In 1983, a pregnant Sheila Hodgers was denied cancer treatment and painkillers, pursuant to the hospital’s Catholic ethos, due to the risk of harm to the fetus. Hodgers went into premature labor and gave birth to a baby girl, who did not survive, before dying herself two days later. Two weeks after her death, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was passed, which “[acknowledged] the right to life of the unborn…with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” While later cases such as Attorney General v. X, in which a 14 year old girl had become suicidal after becoming pregnant by rape, carved out some limited provisions for maternal health, exceptions were enforced differently from hospital to hospital. Women seeking abortions, including those for rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormalities, were routinely forced to travel abroad to Great Britain for treatment — almost 25,000 between 2010 and 2015.
“I knew friends who had to get on a plane or a boat, to lie to their families, because the shame would be so immense,” says M. “They would have to pretend they were on holiday, or their families would try to stop them from leaving. But they knew they could not bring a child into the world.”
A lack of sex education in schools, M says, kept women and girls in a state of ignorance and fear about their own bodies. And for those who found themselves facing unwanted pregnancies, the prospect of carrying to term was a daunting one. Until 1996, unwed mothers were routinely incarcerated in facilities known as “mother and baby homes” or “Magdalene Laundries.” These institutions, largely run by Catholic orders and funded by the state, were rife with abuse, forced labor, and appalling child mortality rates. Babies were often adopted out without the consent or knowledge of their mothers. The discovery of unmarked mass graves has raised questions about the extent of the abuse perpetrated in the Laundries, but the religious orders charged with running them have so far failed to uphold their agreement to make reparations to survivors.
“When it first dawned on me what was going on — or what wasn’t going on — was a schoolmate’s friend,” says M. A fifteen-year-old girl, secretly pregnant by her boyfriend and too afraid to tell anyone, gave birth unassisted in a cemetery and died.
M recalls feeling disbelief, grief, and shock. “What could she have done? Could she not tell anyone? Was it totally out of her control to seek help? There’s so many unknowns. It was only as I got older that I began to wonder if abortion had been an option, could she have gone to a local clinic and saved her own life?”
Even when exceptions are made on paper for the life of the mother, the chilling effect created by anti-abortion legislation still results in needless injury and death. On October 21, 2012, Savita Halappanavar, then 17 weeks pregnant, presented to the University Hospital of Galway with complaints of severe back pain. Physicians determined that a miscarriage was inevitable — the gestational sac was protruding from her body — and presented a significant risk of sepsis. The following night, her membranes ruptured, though the fetus was not expelled. Believing her life to be in danger, Savita requested an abortion. But because a fetal heartbeat was still detectable, Irish law forbade doctors from terminating her pregnancy. Over the next few days, despite pleas from her husband and parents for intervention, Savita developed sepsis and ultimately died of cardiac arrest. She was 31 years old.
A subsequent investigation by the Health Service Executive determined that “there was a lack of recognition of the gravity of the situation and of the increasing risk to the mother which led to passive approaches and delays in aggressive treatment,” which was “either due to the way the law was interpreted in dealing with the case or the lack of appreciation of the increasing risk to the mother and the earlier need for delivery of the fetus.”
Savita’s death ignited national outrage. Thousands of protestors in major cities across Ireland took to the streets to demand reform to Ireland’s abortion law. In 2018, a referendum was announced on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Savita’s death, with the support of her family, became a rallying cry for pro-choice campaigners. “I hope the people of Ireland will remember the fate of our daughter on the day of the referendum,” said Savita’s father. They did. Thousands of Irish citizens returned from overseas to cast their vote. Ultimately, with the support of 66.4% of voters, the Eighth Amendment was repealed.
M’s pro-choice convictions were not always as steadfast as they are today. “Being brought up Catholic, there are certain things you are told are right and wrong,” she says. “You carry that with you, and that guilt makes you bury your head…At the time I don’t think I fully appreciated it, but as you see and hear what people are going through, you wonder, ‘How do they carry that load with them?’”
When asked what she feels about the referendum, M pauses for a second, then responds, “Relief that it happened. Sadness and shame that it took so long.”
“There were many problems in Romania, although I was one of the privileged few,” Irina Moreno says of her upbringing. “My parents were doctors. We had food, color TV—but we didn’t have heating.”
Irina was born in 1965, when Romania was a Communist state under the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. After taking power, Ceaușescu quickly transformed the country into a dictatorship, implementing mass surveillance and severe media censorship. Drawing from 1930s Stalinist ideology, Ceaușescu believed that population growth was the key to economic growth, and set a goal of increasing Romania’s population by 30 percent by 1990. In 1966, his administration passed Decree 770, which criminalized contraception and all but completely banned abortion. “The fetus is the property of the entire society,” he declared. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.”
Ceaușescu’s pro-natalist agenda was pushed on all fronts. “It was very, very hard to live as a woman during those times,” says Irina. “First of all, there was no sexual education. At all — not in the home, not in school, anywhere.” State propaganda extolled the virtues of childrearing, promoting motherhood as “heroic,” even “the meaning of women’s lives”. “Not everybody was keeping herself pure until the age of 30,” says Irina. “Then it was upon us to figure out ways to do it safely.” Some women, like Irina, were able to illicitly obtain birth control, but then had to live in fear of their crime being discovered.
In addition to bans on abortion and contraception, women and girls of reproductive age were subject to forced, routine gynecological examinations to monitor for signs of pregnancy. Those who were found to be pregnant were placed under strict surveillance until they delivered. “I think [that] was the most humiliating thing,” says Irina. “Girls would commit suicide from the shame.”
Though Ceaușescu’s measures did initially succeed in raising the birth rate (total births between 1966 and 1967 almost doubled), the consequences were devastating. State institutions quickly became overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of unwanted and abandoned children. Orphanages faced insufficiencies in food, electricity, and heat, and children were subjected to abuse and neglect, leading to up to an estimated 20,000 preventable deaths. Testimonials from survivors speak of forced sedation, violent beatings, and imprisonment in cages.
Abortion was only permitted under a strictly limited set of circumstances, including threats to life of the mother and having undergone previous C-sections. Wealthy women ineligible for a legal abortion could afford to bribe doctors, who would falsify an appropriate diagnosis. Poor and uneducated women were forced to turn to desperate, dangerous measures to terminate their pregnancies, often through untrained abortionists. “I don’t even know what they would give you,” Irina says. “They might be a car mechanic. Anything.”
These illegal abortions were all too often performed under unsafe and unhygienic conditions, leading to infections and bleeding. Women who sought medical treatment for abortion complications were treated with suspicion, and even contempt. “Before the doctor could come and treat you for sepsis, the policeman would come and interrogate you and create a criminal file,” says Irina. “By then, you might have died already. If not, most of the women who had illegal abortions and ended up in hospital couldn’t have kids after that. And in a way, that was a relief for some of them.”
Before Decree 770 came into effect, Romania’s maternal mortality rate was comparable to those of its neighbors. Afterwards, maternal mortality soared to 159 deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest of any European nation at the time. The vast majority of these deaths — 87 percent — are believed to be a result of complications of unsafe abortions.
Irina ultimately never had to experience the “horror” of seeking an illegal abortion in Romania. But few women’s lives were not touched, in some way, by the bans.
“She wasn’t a friend,” Irina says. “She was a classmate in high school…her name was Dana. She wanted to become a math teacher. Sophomore year of college, I remember seeing her crossing the street. ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you in a long time.’ Two weeks later, I found out she had died. She had an abortion, couldn’t tell her parents, and died. I was in shock for a whole year.”
By the collapse of Ceaușescu’s regime in 1989, an estimated 10,000 Romanian women had lost their lives to unsafe abortion.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has shaken previously-held ideas about the surety of bodily autonomy and healthcare access in the United States. A cascade of so-called “trigger laws” has seen abortion all but completely banned in 12 states. Operating under ambiguously-written “life of the mother” exceptions, doctors now face a legal quagmire in determining whether or not their patients’ lives are in enough danger to justify abortion. In a chilling callback to Savita Halappannavar’s case, women in states like Louisiana and Ohio have been denied appropriate treatment for nonviable pregnancies and miscarriages, even while actively bleeding.
Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision, some opponents of abortion have set their sights on abolishing provisions for maternal health and life. “What we are calling for is a total ban, no exceptions,” says Matt Sande, legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin. “We don’t think abortion is ever necessary to save the life of the mother.”
For women like M and Irina, the current trajectory of abortion rights in the United States is a grim reminder of what they witnessed in their home countries. “When I left Romania,” Irina says, “it was because I wanted to have children in America, and to give them an American life. I would never have thought in a million years that I would come to say I’m glad my children are not in America.”
After leaving Romania, Irina ended up in a refugee camp in Austria before making her way to the U.S. Today, she is pursuing her doctorate and runs 3WLabel, a sustainable women’s clothing brand. When she became a mother, it was by her own decision. “I gave 25 years of my life to raising my kids, because I wanted to,” she says. “They’re my whole universe.”
The crux of the matter, both my interviewees affirm, is choice. “I don’t think anyone has the right to tell another woman what to do with her body, whether to have a baby or not to have a baby,” says M. “Even before I had children, I’d made my mind up on that.”
“You cannot tell me what to do with my body,” echoes Irina. “Nobody has the right. We fought for this. We are not reproductive animals. We are humans.”
As millions of Americans face the loss of their reproductive rights, it is important that we remember that we are not looking ahead to untread ground. Whether secular or religiously-motivated, the devastation caused by abortion bans is well within living memory. I am deeply grateful to M and Irina for sharing their words with me, and I am humbled by their experiences. If what you have read here has made you feel angered, hurt, or hopeless, I hope you will channel that energy into tangible action, be it donating to an abortion fund, becoming involved in grassroots activism, or even educating those around you to dispel popular myths and misconceptions about abortion.