BUCHAREST: Girls wearing traditional outfits from the northern Romanian region attend a protest against the anti-COVID vaccine passport in Bucharest. - AFP

BUCHAREST: Kai, a university student from Bucharest, knew her grandmother had two secret abortions during communist rule in Romania. She thought times had changed. Then she was raped. As the Supreme Court leans towards rolling back abortion rights in the United States, an increasingly powerful conservative lobby means that women in Romania are battling to find a doctor willing to perform the procedure. "My expectation was you call the clinic and you're done. It was very scary because I was running out of time," says 21-year-old Kai, who only wants to use her nickname.

"The first I called advised me to keep the pregnancy, the next two withdrew when they learned that it was a rape and the fourth told me about the risks to my health," she told AFP. Kai was three months pregnant when she finally got an appointment at a public hospital. It was nearly too late. She was approaching 14 weeks, after which it is no longer legal to abort. Neither did the torment end there. By the time the doctor started the procedure, she said the effect of the local anaesthetic had nearly worn off. "It was the worst pain I felt during my entire life, I was screaming, crying."

Romania legalized abortion in 1989 as soon as communist rule collapsed. In 1990, nearly a million abortions were carried out, according to official statistics, three times more than the number of births. But the number has since fallen dramatically. In 2019, fewer than 47,500 were carried out. Last year the number was just 31,900. As in other parts of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed Romanian hospitals, some of which are providing emergency medical care only.

'Very afraid'

While increasingly conservative Poland passed a near-total ban on abortion earlier this year, EU member Romania has not touched its legislation. It doesn't need to. Around 40 percent of some 170 public hospitals said they did not perform abortions, according to a survey carried out earlier this year by non-profit organization Filia whose work focuses on gender equality. Almost a third of those questioned cited religious grounds for their refusals. "Access to abortion is already limited... under the influence of current conservative trends," says Andrada Cilibiu of Filia. Many state-run family planning practises have also been closed due to lack of funding and staff, she adds.

Gynaecologist Ioan Placinta, an Orthodox Christian, works at the largest public hospital in south-eastern county of Vrancea. "Until 15 years ago I sometimes did around 10 abortions a day. But now I've stopped because I've sinned enough," the 56-year-old told AFP. A spokeswoman says the hospital no longer carries out abortions. Another doctor, Corina Bratu, who works at a private clinic in Focsani, Vrancea's largest city, told AFP that she bowed to her husband's wishes and stopped performing abortions for religious reasons.

'Girls believe in us'

Romania's communist regime in 1966 outlawed abortion and contraceptives, as part of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's plan to strengthen the economy through population growth. At least 10,000 women died in the country trying to abort without professional medical care from 1966 to 1989, according to historians, while many others were left mutilated.

Radu Vladareanu, head of Romania's Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, an independent body representing doctors, says medics are not doing their jobs in refusing to carry out requested abortions because of religious beliefs, even if allowed under the code of conduct. "Those of us who lived in a dictatorship know how important it is to fight for women's rights," he says. In a country with the second highest number of teenage pregnancies in the European Union, dozens of women wait in a dark passageway at the Polizu public hospital, one of the few places in Bucharest where women can still get abortions.

"The girls there in the hallway believe in us. How can we tell them that we are not willing to help them?" says Nicolae Suciu, 67, who has worked as a gynaecologist since 1981. Polizu performed more than 1,800 abortions in 2020. Suciu believes Romania should better address the root causes of teen pregnancies, not its effects. "We must focus on prevention and education. Out of 10 women giving birth here one is an adolescent," he says. - AFP