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Sunday, September 23, 2007

In Memoriam of Something

To The Unsung Mothers of Romania

I've just put a very long post up on Demography Matters about Romania's basic demographic profile and the economic problems that are likely to arise as a result. Last night, however, I found myself haunted by something: the huge spike in Romanian mortality that I had found in the data for 1967 and 1968. I couldn't make any sense of it. The annual number of Romanian deaths suddenly rockets up in 1967 and 1968 before gradually tapering off again. In order to understand the explanation for this quite dramatic and tragic situation perhaps the best place to start is with the sudden jump in births which took place in 1967:

What I really want to get at here becomes much plainer if we now come to look at the balance of births and deaths, and especially for those which took place in the late 1960s, since here we will notice that the number of registered deaths rose dramatically in 1967 and it is plain from the way in which the two curves track one another that the pro-natalism policy which lies behind the rise in births does seem to have been somehow linked to the dramatic rise in the number of deaths.

Perhaps in comparison with the huge spike in live births the increase in deaths does not seem too significant, but if we look at the chart for deaths a bit closer up, the increase is readily apparent. Deaths in 1967 were up 21,000 on 1966, in 1968 they were up 31,000 and in 1969 they were up by 43,000 over the 1967 figure.

This jump is undoubtedly the result of one of the most notorious incidents in recent Romanian history, the Ceaucescu pro-natality campaign of the late 1960s. Central to this pronatalist policy was an overnight reversal of the long standing abortion on demand policy, coupled with punitive tax measures for those remaining childless after the age of 25. It is important to be aware at this point that abortion - lamentable as this may have been - had become the central form of birth control for many Romanian women, so this overnight change in policy immediately lead to a huge increase in live births. Unfortunately Romania at the time seems to have had some modern form of Malthusian population, balanced on a knife edge between survival and death, and this rapid increase in extra population seems to have placed huge nutritional and health stress both on mothers and new born babies with the result that the death rate shot upwards in the way we can see above.

Perhaps it isn't necessary to say this at this point (it shouldn't be!), but those of us who are advocating pro-natalist policies to help offset the more dramatic effects of population ageing, normally think in terms of an approach which is more along the lines of the Swedish or French ones, and we would obviously wish to completely dissociate ourselves from the type of coercive pro-natalism which was advocated and implemented by the likes of Ceausescu and his ilk. What we are arguing for is a collective effort on the part of the whole of society (organized inevitably via the state) to transfer resources to those women who would like to have children (Adam Smiths "hidden hand" seems to have gone "missing" at just this point, in the sense that societies and economies do not seem able to guarantee their own reproduction, which is at the end of the day a necessary prerequisite for economic growth as we now know it, so this is precisely the kind of case the old founder of libertarian economics would have had in mind as a justification for state intervention). What is being advocated by modern pro natalists then is a policy to support choice, one based on the secure knowledge that our collective interest as societies lies in the direction of doing this, and of reproducing our populations (even if in decline) across a stable trajectory. Our future lies in this direction since otherwise.... well, unfortunately we are more than likely just about to find out what the otherwise alternative is in the present Romanian case.

So why did this happen? What actually happened back in the Romania of the late 1960s. Was there a famine, was there an epidemic? It appears not. Googling the internet I found this:

With a political system in place that made long-range planning the cornerstone of economic growth, demographic trends took on particular significance. As development proceeded, so did disturbing demographic consequences. It soon became apparent that the country was approaching zero population growth, which carried alarming implications for future labor supplies for further industrialization. The government responded in 1966 with a decree that prohibited abortion on demand and introduced other pronatalist policies to increase birthrates. The decree stipulated that abortion would be allowed only when pregnancy endangered the life of a woman or was the result of rape or incest, or if the child was likely to have a congenital disease or deformity. Also an abortion could be performed if the woman was over forty-five years of age or had given birth to at least four children who remained under her care. Any abortion performed for any other reason became a criminal offense, and the penal code was revised to provide penalties for those who sought or performed illegal abortions.

Other punitive policies were introduced. Men and women who remained childless after the age of twenty-five, whether married or single, were liable for a special tax amounting to between 10 and 20 percent of their income. The government also targeted the rising divorce rates and made divorce much more difficult. By government decree, a marriage could be dissolved only in exceptional cases. The ruling was rigidly enforced, as only 28 divorces were allowed nationwide in 1967, compared with 26,000 the preceding year.

Some pronatalist policies were introduced that held out the carrot instead of the stick. Family allowances paid by the state were raised, with each child bringing a small increase. Monetary awards were granted to mothers beginning with the birth of the third child. In addition, the income tax rate for parents of three or more children was reduced by 30 percent.

Because contraceptives were not manufactured in Romania, and all legal importation of them had stopped, the sudden unavailability of abortion made birth control extremely difficult. Sex had traditionally been a taboo subject, and sex education, even in the 1980s, was practically nonexistent. Consequently the pronatalist policies had an immediate impact, with the number of live births rising from 273,687 in 1966 to 527,764 in 1967--an increase of 92.8 percent. Legal abortions fell just as dramatically with only 52,000 performed in 1967 as compared to more than 1 million in 1965. This success was due in part to the presence of police in hospitals to ensure that no illegal abortions would be performed. But the policy's initial success was marred by rising maternal and infant mortality rates closely associated with the restrictions on abortion.

Now I'm still not that sure what actually happened back there in 1967/68, but it does seems that many of the million extra people who died during those two years were mothers and young children, the innocent victims of an official policy of criminal hysteria. So, even if it isn't much of a thing to do, I would like to dedicate this post to those who died, indeed you might say those who gave their lives for their country, right or wrong. Under the circumstances it seems the least I can do.

As usual, if anyone has any specific information to add about what actually happened at the end of the 1960s, please feel invited to do so.

I also found this, which is also very much to the point:

I was in Romania in 1977 as a speaker on world population issues. I was warned that I could talk about the population policy of any country of the world except Romania. Government representatives were with me at all times to see that I followed those directions. But I was determined to learn how Romanian women were controlling their birth rate, when every means of control had been denied them.

Finally, at a crowded party, with my official spies momentarily out of hearing range, I had an opportunity to find out. I was talking to the head of obstetrics at a major Bucharest hospital. I told him I wondered how the birth rate had fallen, and then I asked, "What has happened to your maternal mortality rate?"

He looked straight at me. He got my drift. "It has become very, very high," he said with great sadness. In nearly every country women who die of complications from abortion, legal or illegal, are listed in health statistics as maternal mortalities. Later I saw some actual figures. As the birth rate came down in Romania after Decree 770, the maternal mortality rate tripled.

Ceausescu's policy to increase the Romanian population failed to achieve its goal. It imposed pain, injury, and death on Romanian women. It also created another problem, which will be with the country for 80 years or so -- the short, sharp baby boom of '67.

Imagine the strain on obstetrics wards in the year when the birth rate doubled. Imagine the demand for first-grade teachers six years later. The kids born in 1967 either had to put up with extra-large classes throughout their education, or they caused frantic adjustments in the system every year as they advanced. Behind them came more adjustments, as the following cohorts were smaller again. Our own school system had its difficulties with the passage of a smaller and more gradual baby boom; imagine the problems in impoverished, oppressed Romania.

So at a time when we all as European are becoming more and more aware of those many episodes in our history which we would often prefer to forget, perhaps it might be an idea to find the space to dedicate some time to these innocent victims of collective folly. Perhaps instead of busying ourselves building so many new blocks of flats, we might also like to find the time for one small monument somewhere, to commemorate those who died.


Anonymous said...

how about terrible floods in Transylvania in 1969 ? My father spent half his time in the army fishing bodies and rebuilding dikes ...

Edward Hugh said...

"how about terrible floods in Transylvania in 1969 ?"

Ok, thanks. You have been very helpful. Unfortunately the scale of this problem is nowhere near enough to be that significant (see press cutting from the time below).

I think it important to realise that the scale of this is enormous, and that the death toll from the floods though tragic was slight. Also these floods don't correlate at all with the time horizon since they were in May 1970. The number of extra deaths in Romania that concern me - according to official figures - is nearly half a million per annum in 1968 and 1969, since mortality rises from 390,000 in 1967 to 876,000 in 1968. It stays at this level during 1968, and then starts to drop back again in 1969 and 1970. More than one million extra people died. This is massive.

The country seems to have been plunged into some kind of Malthusian crisis.

On the other hand I did discover looking for information on the floods that one of my favourite Poets Paul Celan (real name Paul Antschel) was born in Czernovitz, Romania (he died on 1 May 1970, hence his name came up in the searches).


Press statement

Rumanian authorities have received a great number of condolences from abroad. President Nixon was one of the first to send a telegram to Ceausescu expressing his distress at the huge losses. An emergency air shipment of 5,000 cotton blankets and 1,000 family-type tents was dispatched from the US on May 21.

Aid was granted in the meantime also by China which offered 500,000 yuan (250,000 dollars), Sweden 8,000 dollars, Canada 16,000 dollars. A Lufthansa plane left West Germany on 21 May with medicine, food and clothes donated to Rumania. Britain announced on May 20 that it was preparing to send tents, blankets money and medicines to flood victims in Rumania. Yugoslavia sent aid to a value of 500,000 dinars; East Germany, various material worth 130,000 marks; Switzerland, 500,000 Swiss Francs; Israel, medicines, milk powder and 15,000 Israeli pounds; and Holland, 10,000 US dollars, medicines, and food.

High government officials from France, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Greece, Denmark, China, Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Albania, India, Pakistan, Tunisia and other countries have also sent condolences. However, bewildering is still the absence of any message or aid from the Soviet Union which in the past provided help to Yugoslavia (Skoplje and Banja Luka).

On May 20, FRG television (1st program) announced the establishment of Account No. 41 41 41, "Aid for Rumanian Flood Victims," and invited people to donate money to this account.

According to a spokesman for the Rumanain Embassy in London (Reuter of May 22), over 200 people have died in the floods and at least 65,000 houses are under water, which means that a quarter of a million people are homeless.

Emil Perhinschi said...

Well, there were floods between 1969 up to 1972, both West and East of the Carpatians, with a record of 304,3 l/m2 falling only in July 1969, 310,3 l/m2 in May 1970 etc. The floods from 1970 just got more publicity, probably because the government felt more secure as far as the possibility of SU intervention were concerned: between 1968 and 1971 the army was involved not only in tackling with the inundations, but also in extensive maneuvers, the term of service being prolonged by almost a half, and followed by extensive remobilization and continued training of reserve commissioned and noncom officers.

As far as I can see, there is either an error in the figures, or the extent of the damage was hidden in order to hide the degree of vulnerability. My guess you deal with a combination of the two: from what I know from family members, there was more damage from the floods, and it began in 1969.

Where did you get the "official figures" ?