Workshop on the Status of Women in the New Market Economies
co-sponsored by NEWW and the University of Connecticut School of Law

Read the Conference Program

April 13-15, 1996
Prepared by Sonia Jaffe Robbins

Monday morning, April 15, 1996
Panel II: Reproductive Freedom


Daniela Lupas:
We will pick up from Fran Olsen's comment this morning that unsafe abortions are an attack on women and an attack on women's health. This is how the panel will proceed: First, we will have basic information on what the law was like under communism and what it is like now, with reports from Russia, Poland, and Romania. Second, we will have a legal analysis, with Nanette Funk's analysis of what happened in Germany, and Karen Peifer's broader look at women's reproductive rights as a public health issue.

Anastasia Posadskaya (Russia):
The issue of reproductive rights in Russia is not limited to abortion, but abortion is a core issue. In Russia, abortion was legal from 1917 to 1936. From 1936 to 1956, abortion was banned for political reasons based on demography, the declining Russian population. Then in 1956, abortion was legalized and has been since.
There were attempts in 1991, 1992, and 1993 to pass a law on "the protection of the family," including a clause on the rights of the fetus, which passed the first hearing. But women's organizations lobbied against it, and many deputies cooperated in killing this bill. The pressure against abortion comes from the Russian Orthodox Church and the demographic situation. There is now in the Duma a demography lobby, mostly off men, who have proposed that the state declare a distinct number of children as a "good family" because the Russian population now has a negative birth rate. The Moscow Center for Gender Studies successfully lobbied against this proposal.

Urszula Nowakowska (Poland):
One of the first actions of the post-communist government was to attack reproductive rights, largely because of the influence of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is a powerful factor in national identity and provided much support for dissidents under communism, so support for abortion was at first seen as opposition to the Church. The first attempt to repeal the right to abortion came in 1989, after the first partially free elections, with the claim that democracy means rights for all, including the unborn. The Church threatened to excommunicate deputies who did not vote for the repeal. The right-to-life film, "The Silent Scream," was shown in schools and children were asked to sign petitions against abortion. Some doctors refused to perform abortions.

In March 1993, a strict anti-abortion law was passed, permitting abortions only if the life of the mother was seriously threatened or if there was severe deformation of the fetus, and those few abortions that were allowed had to be done in private hospitals. In fact, the new law affected only location and price of abortion. In practice, some doctors refused to recommend abortions, even if the situation met the law; for example, a woman with epilepsy who became pregnant was told she shouldn't have slept with her husband. For another example, a 20-year-old who was raped was told that since she was over 15, she should have known how to avoid the rape.

Women have gone to Western Europe or further east to obtain abortions, what is called "abortion tourism," and some men have been prosecuted for providing such services. Private doctors charge high fees. Many women, it is hard to estimate how many, try home methods and end up in hospitals, and there has been an increase in abandoned children. The left government elected in 1994 passed a law legalizing abortion, but Walesa, still president, vetoed it. The new president has promised to sign a repeal of the ban on abortion, but the new draft has taken a long time to pass. Deputies expected to support it are worried about future parliaments. Women's groups are organizing support.

Daniela Lupas: (Romania):
Everyone is united in support of the right to abortion because Ceaucescu outlawed abortion. However, even under Ceaucescu, the rate of abortion was the same 10 years after the ban was passed as when abortion was legal. Complication from abortion was the major cause of death for women. Romania continues to have the highest death rate for women, even with abortion legalized. Abortion was legalized three days after the revolution in 1989. Since then there has been a drop in the birth rate. Women now use abortion as their only means of birth control because abortion is paid for by the state, while people must buy their own contraceptives. The Roma don't use abortion and have a high birth rate; ethnic Romanians have 1 or 2 children, while Roma have 6 or more. Talking about reproductive rights is an X-ray of society, showing how both women and gender are perceived.

Nanette Funk (U.S.A.):
The unification of Germany made abortion a central issue and the intensity and length of the debate show how important the notion of woman is to the notion of the state. In Germany, this process took 6 years of debate; unification took place in October 1990, the new law took effect only in January 1996. The unification agreement required a new law by 1992, because the law in Eastern Germany was considerably more liberal than the law in the West. In 1992, Parliament presented the West German law, which required counseling, but liberalized it somewhat in permitting the woman rather than a doctor to decide and removing abortion from the criminal code (where it had been for 100 years). Women and deputies from the former East Germany had very little voice in developing this compromise bill.

Because Germany has an abstract judicial review process, the opposition appealed immediately to the High Court as soon as Parliament passed this law. A year later, in 1993, the High Court invalidated the law, because it named abortion as legal and therefore violated the fetus's right to life. This decision was more conservative than the West German law had been. However, this left Germany without an abortion law. The practical effects were that the German government said it would not punish women who had abortions, and would not pay for abortions through social insurance. The Court decision bolstered counseling, now defined as helping "women make a responsible and conscientious decision," by explicitly telling the woman her fetus had a right to life against her rights.

This control of discourse through counseling reveals the problems of this model. Counseling requires that the woman discuss a subject that she otherwise would have been free to keep silent about. Counseling is seen as conflict resolution; the woman who seeks an abortion, she is assumed to have a conflict, and counseling is defined as finding the conflict and resolving it. How Germany solves the abortion issue is important in the region because Germany is the leading player in Central and Eastern Europe.

Joan Williams (U.S.A.):
Thinking about the United States, she reached the same conclusions as Nanette Funk did, about the relationship between notions of woman and notions of the state. Her perception is that gender unites men, while it divides women, through a system of patterned difference, such as the divide among feminists over essentialism and difference. What divides men are issues of class and race. Women's differences are seen in divisions of role, for example, the "mommy wars" in which mothers who work outside the home make disparaging comments about mothers who "bake cookies," while mothers who don't work outside the home make disparaging remarks about mothers who "leave their children with strangers." Women's disadvantaged position leads to fights over gender roles. She referred to Kristin Luker's and Faye Ginsburg's analyses of abortion activists in California and North Dakota. Both found that activists on both sides were women; Luker found a class divide between anti-abortion activists (working class) and pro-choice activists (middle-class), while Ginsburg found a generational divide between the older (pro-choice) and younger (anti-abortion) activists.
One way to get beyond these divides is to reframe abortion as a health issue. Currently, in U.S. legal language, abortion is covered as a negative right; there are few positive rights in the U.S. Constitution. Abortion and motherhood are at the center of the gender debate with a class dimension. Control over women and women's roles is central to male identity, if part of the culture is male supremacy.

Karen Peifer (U.S.A.)
discussed reproductive rights as public health policy analysis. Changing the law can lead to changes in institutional structure. She sees public health from an economic, social, political science, and health perspective, but her methods are not based on feminist theory. She presented several definitions of health indices:
  • infant mortality rate: number of deaths divided by number of live births
  • maternal mortality rate: number of women's deaths divided by number of women of child-bearing age
  • contraception rate: percentage of women using contraceptives
Peifer then presented several sets of statistics:
maternal deaths in Romania:
before 1989 300 per 100,000
1990 130 per 100,000 after repeal of abortion ban
1992 60 per 100,000
(The high rate before 1989 can be attributed to
poor health care and self-induced abortions.)

Maternal deaths:
in former Soviet Union
1989 40 per 100,000
1992 45 per 100,000

Central and Eastern Europe average
1990 20 per 100,000
1995 19 per 100,000

West European average
1995 9 per 100,000

Contraceptive rate in 1995:
in Romania 11 %
in Poland 35 %
in Hungary 60 %

Abortion rates in 1992:
Romania 138.4 per 100,000
Czech Republic 41.5 per 100,000
Poland 14 per 100,00
(In Poland, "abortion tourism" distorts the numbers.)

Most countries no longer pay for abortions, or for contraceptives, and health care for abortions is poor. If contraceptives are available, they are expensive: in Poland, the cost is $3-$6 a month, when the average salary is $25 a month. Doctors collude to keep the price of abortions high.


Helen Hartnell (U.S.A.):
Nationality does not have to do with nationhood per se, but with ethnicity. Germany has a large number of ethnicities and refugees.

Alexandra Rudneva (Ukraine):
We must also speak of the right to bear a healthy child. In Ukraine, only 18% of girls and 11% of boys are born healthy. In Kharkov, which was not affected by Chernobyl or by heavy industry, in 1991, 61% of births showed some pathology, and in 1994, it was 72%. Perhaps this is the effect of many abortions before a wanted conception, or it may be because of medical mistakes during delivery.

Reva Siegal:
Joining the issues of abortion and mother's (or non-mother's) health undercuts the argument that pits the woman against the fetus. In the U.S., restrictions are aimed at only certain classes of women.

Isabel Marcus (U.S.A.):
Looking at the "political conditions of motherhood" rather than the "social conditions" may be better.

Nanette Funk (U.S.A.):
In Germany, counseling is supposed to give the state a chance to tell women all the support it would offer if she bears the child, as though only ignorance makes her think she has to have an abortion. In the German context, Germans are concerned about ethnicities overwhelming "Deutscheness."

Mary Ann Case (U.S.A.):
Is it possible that theoretical claims for women's reproductive and political rights are in tension with the actual availability of getting an abortion? For example, in Germany it seems that the system denies women's autonomy while actually allowing them more access to abortion.

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