Abortion Numbers High in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

LAST MONTH'S VOTE to liberalize Poland's 1993 law will be a setback to those campaigning to tighten abortion rules elsewhere in the region. Abortion has been a political issue throughout Eastern Europe, since efforts were made to tighten permissive communist-era laws after 1989. In Romania, where abortion was prohibited under communist rule, and where breaking the law could even lead to the death penalty, sudden liberalization in 1990 gave the country by far the highest abortion rate in Europe, with more than 1.2 million performed yearly in a population of 24 million. A total of 110,000 abortions-seven for every live birth-were registered in the capital of Bucharest alone in 1994. Lacking medicines and vitamins, Romania also has Europe's highest incidence of infant mortality.

In the traditionally Catholic countries of Eastern Europe, official figures suggest abortion rates are falling as living conditions improve and contraception becomes more widely available. A permissive 1986 law, allowing women to obtain abortions free of charge during up to three months of pregnancy, is still in force in the Czech Republic, where pro-life groups have failed to mobilize support for tighter restrictions. However, the Health Ministry there says abortion rates have been falling every year, from 107,130 in 1990 to 53,674 in 1994.

In neighboring Slovakia, a Christian Democrat-sponsored 1992 bill would have tightened the existing 1954 law, while still allowing abortions for “social and economic reasons.” There too, this initiative was swamped by other legislative priorities. But the abortion rate has been falling in Slovakia anyway. Current official figures are at least 10 percent below those of the late 1980s.

So far, the only country to have gone as far as Poland in adopting full-scale new regulations is Hungary, whose December 1992 “Defense of Fetal Life Act” says “the planning of a family is the right and responsibility of parents,” but stipulates that abortions “cannot be an instrument of family planning and birth control.” The law allows abortions up to 12 weeks when the mother's health is threatened or when the fetus has a “severe impairment or other deficiency,” as well as in rape cases, or when the mother is “in a severe crisis.”

However, it permits them up to 18 weeks when a woman is “fully or partially incapacitated,” up to 24 weeks when genetic defects are diagnosed, and at any time when the mother's life is endangered or the baby will “fail to attain proper life.” All hospitals with gynecology departments must have an abortion team.

As in Poland, Hungarian law obliges schools to teach “esteem for human life, a salutary way of life, responsible relationships with partners, and family values worthy of mankind.” It also requires the government to publicize contraception and “fetal protection,” and provides for a pregnancy grant from the fourth month equal to the allowance for a living child. Hungary's Health Ministry reported a steady decrease in abortions in the 1970s and 1980s, after a peak of more than 200,000 recorded in 1969 in a population of 10 million. The rate rose again in 1990 to 90,394, but has been falling since, reaching 74,491 in 1994.

But there are doubts about the 1992 law's practical effect. Out of 7,000 women who visit Hungary's Family Welfare Service every month for the statutory pre-abortion “advice,” only a few hundred decide to keep their babies. With live births averaging 125,000 yearly, Hungary's aging population is expected to fall by at least 10 percent in the next 20 years.

Some health experts say figures like this are mild compared to those of Russia, where an estimated 300 million abortions have been performed since the procedure was legalized in the 1920s. Over 3.5 million abortions are registered annually, according to Russia's Health Ministry. However, independent estimates put the figure closer to seven million, with 170,000 women dying yearly from side-effects of abortion. The average Russian female citizen is reported by State statisticians to have 4-5 abortions in her lifetime, with 98 performed annually for every 1,000 women aged 15-49. Only 15 percent of Russian women have not had abortions.

In Moscow, 137,000 abortions and five female deaths were officially recorded in 1994, compared to 64,000 live births. Acity council directive declared abortions free in state hospitals and clinics from October 1995 onward. However, in a November 1995 survey, reported by Russia's Blagofest-Info ecumenical news agency, 60 percent of Muscovites said they believed abortions should be even “easier to obtain.”

-Jonathan Luxmoore