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Feature 09 Nov 17

Albanian Women Remember Fear of Abortion During Communism

The danger of having an abortion in communist Albania did not stop huge numbers of women from taking this perilous path – but for many of these women, the fear and stress of those events has left lasting traces. 

Fatjona Mejdini
BIRN
Tirana
Albanian women working in a factory during communism. Photo: Petrit Kumi

Mira was a 24-year-old tailor from Tirana in 1979 when she found out that her 25-year-old  lover had made her pregnant.

“I was shocked and scared since we had no chance of marrying soon. I couldn’t have a baby without getting engaged and married first, as that would have shamed my family and especially my brother in front of society. So I decided to find a way and abort it,” she told BIRN.

Abortion was a crime in communist Albania as it contradicted the party directive to increase the population at almost any cost.

However, Mira was one of hundreds of thousand of women that were ready to risk the stiff penalties and their lives in order to get abortions under the oppressive regime. Stimulating them, and making them look like a miscarriage, was one of a few ways to get it done.

Mira considered herself lucky to have a distant cousin working as heart doctor in hospital, who helped get her a false medical report saying she had heart problems. She was then able to get permission from the hospital authorities for a lawful abortion because of her medical condition.

“I didn't know what I have done without her help; she practically saved my life,” Mira said of her cousin.

A study presented on October 27 by Celo Hoxha, a historian and vice-director of the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes, at a conference in the faculty of Social Sciences, had shed important new light on the still taboo topic of abortions in Albania.

According to the study, based on the Communist authorities’ own data, there were a total of 209,173 registered abortions from 1960 to 1980, far more than in the 1940s and 1950s when the regime was in its early days. However, the real number of abortions is believed to be far higher since many women had abortions outside clinics.

The study presents a number of causes for abortions under the Communist regime, including the dire condition of most women at the time and a still strong patriarchal culture.

Having many children under these conditions - as the ruling party advised - was painful and exhausting for women.

Anita was 21 in 1977 when she decided to abort her first pregnancy after finding out that her marriage was not the one she had dreamed of.

“I stood up on a two-metre-high a table and threw myself down three times with all my strength before I saw the bleeding start and immediately went to hospital,” Anita, who was a young economist at the time, told BIRN.

At the hospital, Anita did not tell anyone that she knew that she was pregnant and acted surprised when doctors confirmed that she had suffered a miscarriage.

“I wanted to escape from my marriage for many reasons,” she recalled. “One was living in two rooms with my husband, three of his siblings and his parents. It was impossible for us a couple to move into our own home. A child would have bonded me forever with that misery.”

Anita told BIRN that female friends of hers would use other almost unimaginable tricks and devices to end their pregnancies and make it look a miscarriage, like lifting heavy weights, exposing themselves to strong chemicals so that the fetus would be poisoned, or even injecting themselves with high doses of antibiotics.

Human and female solidarity was a strong factor in helping women abort and hide the real reasons from suspicious party officials who took the directive on boosting population growth seriously, without caring about the physical and mental consequences of such forced demographics.

Many doctors and nurses became complicit in breaking the law while helping women stimulate abortions, often even carrying them out in and outside the clinics, gravely risking their own professional careers and even their freedom.

Shannon Woodcock an Australian researcher of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the author of the book “Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania” told BIRN that the party deliberately made contraception and abortion illegal as a way of controlling women’s lives.

“Dictatorships rely on controlling sexual relationships between people, and this affects both men and women. Dictatorships also rely on keeping women’s bodies out of their own control,” she said.

While writing her book, Woodcock met both doctors and nurses who spoke of how they attempted to protect women with medical interventions and then by registering their abortions as miscarriages or as infections rather than provoked abortions.

“Doctors who performed illegal abortions in Tirana hospitals were afraid of denunciation and persecution, and have explained to me in interviews that they understood why women needed their help; they acted ethically within an unethical and dangerous system,” she said.

According to Woodcock, poverty was an important factor in the high abortion rate during Communism, although the system offered financial as well as moral awards to women that gave birth to 10 or more children.

"Most everyday people who tell their life stories, speak of the stress of a pregnancy in the time when … work was physically demanding, volunteer labour and the emotional work of dedication to the party was taxing, while finding food was costly, time-consuming and sometimes impossible,” she said.

The conservative mentality of this isolated society was also a big factor in making many women abandon the perspective of becoming mothers.

According to Woodcock, the party divided people into those having “good biographies” and those with “bad biographies”, partly to control sexual relationships.

If someone with a good biography married someone with a “bad” biography, they risked losing their status, so damaging their living standard. It also meant that any of their children would automatically carry their “stain”.

“I am sure that both men and women facing an unexpected pregnancy imagined their children being treated as ‘enemies of the people’ from their birth and decided to either seek an abortion, or the men would leave the women to decide what to do on their own,” she said.

However, the trauma and mental distress that often accompanies an abortion was not something that could be easily erased and successfully hidden from society.

Although 38 years has passed since, Mira, now a pensioner, never married and prefers to leave that episode of her life well alone.

“The burden has never gone. I wanted so much to have a child and if it had come along in democracy, like we have now, I would never have aborted it,” she said.

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