Saturday

22nd Feb 2020

Investigation

Why 60 Romanian hospitals are refusing abortions

  • A 'Set for Life' anti-abortion march in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, on 23 March 2019, inspired by similar rallies in Washington DC. Although abortion is legal and a right in Romania, many doctors refuse to perform it (Photo: Michael Bird)

Romanian medical student Bianca was finishing her Erasmus exchange programme in Germany, when she went on a short visit to South Korea, where she discovered she was seven weeks pregnant.

The news freaked her out. She was in her final year at a Romanian university, about to sit her exams, and knew that a baby would complicate her life.

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  • On the grounds of the state-run Cuza Voda Hospital in Iasi is a church with its entrance covered by a poster of an anti-choice organisation, Glasul Vietii. It says: 'With God together for a new life! Together we can make great people!' (Photo: The Black Sea reporter)

So she considered her options. Back in March, when she learned of the pregnancy, abortion was still illegal in South Korea. In Germany, the procedure was expensive and required a four-day waiting period.

Bianca (EUobserver is not publishing her surname, to protect her identity) decided that Romania was her best option.

Two weeks later, in her home city of Iasi, northeast Romania, she travelled to the Cuza Voda hospital, the largest public gynaecology institution in the region.

"I asked if they could make an abortion there," said Bianca. "[The doctor] said, 'We don't perform abortions'."

According to Bianca, the doctor told her the hospital does not provide medical abortions – a non-surgical procedure requiring two pills be taken within 48 hours - because they seem not to be safe, which is itself a questionable claim.

Instead, the doctor recommended that Bianca visit a private clinic.

With only a few days before she had to return to Germany for her exams, Bianca was forced to ask a friend to help obtain abortion pills, which she then took without medical supervision.

"I would have preferred a doctor who could tell me exactly how I was supposed to take these pills, because there are risks," she said.

Robert Danca, the manager of Cuza Voda hospital, said that all the doctors there have refused to perform abortions on religious and moral grounds since 2014 - a position that he supports.

"The law does not oblige us to do this, as it is a service on request, and we can accept or not," he said.

Legal procedure - but few practitioners

By law, women in Romania can access an abortion at a state hospital for the first 14 weeks of their pregnancy - without any counselling or waiting period.

But Bianca's situation, and that of many others like her, appears to have become commonplace.

According to an investigation by east European publication The Black Sea, a significant proportion of public hospitals are now refusing the procedure.

Between March and April this year, a reporter contacted public hospitals with gynaecology departments across Romania to inquire about terminations, which was followed in June and July by follow-up confirmations.

In total, the research found that 60 of the 189 hospitals - more than a quarter of the total surveyed – refused to grant them.

A full map of those hospitals contacted, and their responses, is here.

Doctor's right vs patient's needs

Individual doctors in Romania have the right to refuse to perform abortions.

The 2016 professional code for medics outlines that any doctor can decline to provide services if it affects their professional independence or moral values, or contravenes their professional principles.

These "conscience-based refusal" laws are common in most European countries - but when every doctor in a hospital invokes them, women find their access to healthcare faces restrictions.

Human rights lawyer Iustina Ionescu argues that any woman refused an abortion by her local hospital could sue, drawing a distinction between individual doctors and the healthcare provided.

"The doctor might not be held responsible," she says, "but 'the unit' is a service provider covered by the healthcare law, and does not have such an explicit provision. I would say it is illegal for the healthcare unit to refuse, but we would need [to bring] a case."

The professional code states that any doctor refusing to provide abortions must first give their reasons and then direct the patient to another colleague or medical unit.

But from the hospitals we telephoned which refused an abortion on request, 10 failed to make any referral at all, and a further 16 gave no specific referral - instead suggesting that our reporter go to another city or a private clinic.

Timisoara

Daniela Chiriac is a doctor in the Municipal Clinical Emergency Hospital in the western city of Timisoara, where only seven of the 44 doctors undertake abortions.

She stopped carrying out abortions seven years ago. "I thought that if I could avoid a sin, then I should do it," she said. "There are many patients who ask me to recommend someone else and I refuse, because it is also a sin."

The Orthodox Church has an influence on the issue of abortion.

In Timisoara, in 2014, the head of the Orthodox Church granted diplomas to eighteen doctors who refused to grant abortions.

On the grounds of the state-run Cuza Voda Hospital in Iasi is a church with its entrance covered by a poster of an anti-choice organisation, Glasul Vieții.

It announces: 'With God together for a new life! Together we can make great people!' Underneath it, pinned to the church, are pages decrying abortion as a "great sin" and the "killing" of life.

Dan Damaschin is a priest, and president of Glasul Vietii.

Before Cuza Voda effectively banned the procedure, Damaschin said his organisation enlisted volunteers to stand outside the hospital with placards and leaflets containing anti-abortion messages.

In recent years, anti-abortion groups have begun to work closely with Romanian politicians to raise the profile of their movement.

In 2018, former Romanian MP Daniel Gheorghe invited mothers who had been talked out of having an abortion by a pregnancy crisis centre to an event in the parliament in Bucharest.

His "Babies go to Parliament" initiative was inspired by American organisation Heartbeat International's annual event in Washington DC, known as "Babies go to Congress".

Then MEP Catalin Ivan at the Bucharest march (Photo: Michael Bird)

In March, Romanian then-MEP Catalin Ivan organised the first "Babies go to the European Parliament" event in Brussels in a meeting room of the European Parliament.

There have been others.

In March, anti-abortion NGO Pro Vita hosted a 'March for Life' in Bucharest, inspired by the annual protest in the American capital.

Present at the event was MP Matei-Adrian Dobrovie from the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL).

Dobrovie said that Romania is in demographic decline, and there is a need "to support the pro-life movement," since the country ranks as second highest in the EU for abortions per live births, behind only Bulgaria.

Dobrovie spoke of his proposals for state-funded counselling centres for women considering a termination.

"These centres exist in other countries, such as the United States, and in Romanian legislation they are not regulated," Dobrovie said. "I proposed to the ministry of labour that these centres should be included and the occupation of assistant and counsellor in the pregnancy crisis to be included in the social services."

A similar law was proposed in 2012, but failed to gain a majority in parliament.

Asked if there is parliamentary support for these initiatives today, Dobrovie replied that: "there is a group of people who are dedicated to pro-family measures and we are trying to find cross-party support, because these policies must have consensus."

Bianca herself is now back in Germany, and will soon take up her residency as a doctor. But she has been shocked by the approach in her home country.

"It was a conservative and outdated attitude," she said. "I don't understand how these doctors refuse to do this. It's a horrible situation."

Author bio

Lina Vdovii and Michael Bird write for The Black Sea newsite, where a longer version of this piece first appeared. This report was made possible with support from Journalism Fund.

Bird is a freelance journalist specialising in eastern Europe, who has carried out investigations for European Investigative Collaborations, The Independent on Sunday, Politico, Tagesspiegel, among others.

Vdovii is an award-winning long-form investigative journalist, who has written for EUobserver, The Guardian, RFE/RL, Christian Science Monitor, Balkan Insight and Al Jazeera.

Additional reporting by Liana Fermeseanu.

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