Romania Abortion Case Study

Reductions in abortion-related mortality following policy reform: evidence from Romania, South Africa and Bangladesh

1Vice President, Research and Evaluation Unit, Ipas, P.O. Box 5027, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 USA

2Senior Associate, Research and Evaluation Unit, Ipas, P.O. Box 5027, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 USA

3Independent Consultant, Research and Evaluation Unit, Ipas, P.O. Box 5027, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 USA

Corresponding author.

Janie Benson: gro.sapi@jnosneb; Kathryn Andersen: gro.sapi@knesredna; Ghazaleh Samandari: moc.liamg@iradnamas.g

Author information ►Article notes ►Copyright and License information ►

Received 2011 Aug 16; Accepted 2011 Dec 22.

Copyright ©2011 Benson et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

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Unsafe abortion is a significant contributor to worldwide maternal mortality; however, abortion law and policy liberalization could lead to drops in unsafe abortion and related deaths. This review provides an analysis of changes in abortion mortality in three countries where significant policy reform and related service delivery occurred. Drawing on peer-reviewed literature, population data and grey literature on programs and policies, this paper demonstrates the policy and program changes that led to declines in abortion-related mortality in Romania, South Africa and Bangladesh. In all three countries, abortion policy liberalization was followed by implementation of safe abortion services and other reproductive health interventions. South Africa and Bangladesh trained mid-level providers to offer safe abortion and menstrual regulation services, respectively, Romania improved contraceptive policies and services, and Bangladesh made advances in emergency obstetric care and family planning. The findings point to the importance of multi-faceted and complementary reproductive health reforms in successful implementation of abortion policy reform.


Unsafe abortion and inadequate post-abortion care are significant contributors to maternal mortality, which is a major cause of death among women of reproductive age worldwide. An estimated 21.6 million unsafe abortions occurred globally in 2008, many of them in developing countries with highly restrictive abortion laws [1]. Approximately 47,000 women die annually from complications of unsafe abortions, a rate of 220 deaths per 100,000 unsafe abortions [1]. These deaths constitute 13% of maternal mortality worldwide, with proportions as high as 49% in some settings [1,2]. In addition to death, approximately 5 million women in the developing world require hospitalization for complications resulting from unsafe abortions, and these complications can lead to long-term health problems [3].

Unsafe abortions, and associated morbidity, mortality and socioeconomic impact, are not inevitable. Unsafe abortion is more likely in settings where there are strong legal prohibitions or where more liberal laws have not translated into access to safe and comprehensive services. The 82 countries with the most restrictive abortion legislation are also those with the highest incidence of unsafe abortions and abortion mortality ratios [4]. In such settings, women often fear legal reprisal or are otherwise unable to access necessary post-abortion care. An estimated 15-25% of women in need of medical treatment for abortion-related complications do not seek care [3]. In many cases women who do try to access the health care system for post-abortion care are met with stigma and given sub-par medical treatment, further compounding the risk of morbidity and mortality [5].

Restrictive abortion policies can also have reverberating social and economic effects on women, their children and larger communities. By 2007, 67 countries had legislation explicitly permitting legal termination on the grounds of economic or social hardship, recognizing the potential impact of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion on women's socio-economic outcomes [6]. Studies also suggest that children born under abortion bans experience substantial socio-economic adversity such as lower rates of education, poor labor market outcomes, higher incidence of mental health problems and higher dependence on welfare [7,8].

The legal context of abortion can significantly affect the incidence of unsafe abortion and its related health consequences; however, an improvement in legislation alone may be insufficient for producing lasting change. In both India and Zambia, abortion was legalized in the early 1970's, but due to a lack of adequate services and continued procedural barriers, safe abortions remain limited. Although health centers in India were mandated to provide safe abortion services in 1971, a shortage of well-trained physicians and appropriate medical equipment has resulted in continued unsafe abortions and an estimated abortion-related mortality ratio of at 37 per 100,000 live births [9-12]. The Zambian abortion law is among the most liberal on the African continent. However, due to required consent from three registered medical practitioners and a lack of available safe abortion services, many women continue to rely on unsafe, clandestine abortions [9], which contribute to the maternal mortality ratio, currently at 591 deaths per 100,000 live births [13-15]. Only recently has the Zambian government made a commitment to address barriers to safe abortion services [16].

Benson [17] provides a framework positing that abortion law and policy reform has maximal impact on abortion-related maternal mortality when it occurs in conjunction with other supportive programs and services (Figure ​1). According to this framework, utilization of safe abortion services, and, ultimately, a reduction in maternal mortality, is best achieved when liberalized abortion policies are supplemented with improved availability and distribution of safe abortion services across a population. Women's knowledge of and attitudes toward abortion, as well as confidence in obtaining services and access to contraception, can also enhance utilization of safe abortion services. The framework suggests that only when these elements coordinate with a loosening of abortion restrictions can real impacts in unsafe abortion and abortion-related mortality be seen. Although Benson's framework provides a theoretical foundation for the paper, this study is not intended to specifically test the components of the model.

Figure 1

Conceptual framework for evaluating safe abortion programs (Benson 2005): This figure describes Benson's framework for evaluating safe abortion programs. Source for this figure is reference [17].

Through the use of case studies, this paper explores potential policy and programmatic factors contributing to a decline in abortion-related mortality following abortion policy reform in Romania, South Africa and Bangladesh. These countries were selected on the basis of availability of evidence on abortion-related deaths prior to and following abortion policy change.


Through a systematic literature review of peer-reviewed studies, we identified countries where sufficient data and information were available to examine attributes of the reproductive health service delivery context and abortion-related mortality following abortion policy reform. The list of case studies originally included Bangladesh, Cuba, Guyana, South Africa, Romania, Turkey and others. However, only countries for which there was substantial published evidence on trends in abortion related mortality and information on related reproductive health programs were included in the final review; these include Romania, South Africa and Bangladesh.

Articles were identified through a broad literature search including the terms "abortion-related mortality", "maternal mortality" and one or more of the country names. For each article, all possible relevant citations were reviewed for both epidemiologic data on abortion-related mortality and information on policy, service delivery and interventions related to abortion and sexual and reproductive health.

International statistical databases and government/non-governmental (NGO) agency reports for each country were also accessed to aid in the estimation of abortion-related maternal mortality and explanation of relevant programs. Statistical data from pertinent epidemiological sources were extracted and graphed in Excel 2007 to create a representation of trends in abortion-related mortality for each country.

Information on the abortion law reform process and details of supplementary program interventions were gleaned from the peer-reviewed and grey literature. Parameters included: the provision of safe abortion services, availability of safe abortion technologies, training of physicians and mid-level providers in safe abortion care, programs targeting changes in women's and providers' knowledge of and attitudes towards abortion, service guidelines and protocols and access to other services such as family planning or emergency obstetric care.


The results of this review are presented for three main topics: 1) abortion policy reform; 2) supplemental abortion and reproductive health initiatives; and 3) declines in abortion-related mortality. For Romania and South Africa, abortion-related mortality is compared for the periods prior and subsequent to the policy change. In the case of Bangladesh, where there was no overt abortion law change but rather a change in health system policy towards availability of menstrual regulation (MR), the decline in mortality was measured continuously for the period following the expansion of the MR program in two sub-district areas. Table ​1 provides key indicators for reproductive health, socio-economic status and abortion policy for each country.

Table 1

Country Profiles in Reproductive Health, Socioeconomic Status and Abortion Policy


Romanian Abortion Policy Reform

As head of the ruling party in 1965, Nikolai Ceauşescu sought to reverse the decline in Romania's population growth by pursuing a rigid and brutally enforced pro-natalist policy. In 1966 and again in 1985, Ceauşescu significantly increased legal restrictions on abortion and banned modern contraceptives [18-22]. As a result, by 1989, Romania had the highest recorded maternal mortality ratio in Europe (170 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births), 87% of which were attributed to abortion complications [19,23,24].

Following the execution of Ceauşescu in 1989, the new Romanian government immediately abolished the restrictive abortion law [19]. This repeal was followed in 1996 by formal legislation which allowed women to freely request a termination of pregnancy within 12 weeks of gestation. Beyond 12 weeks gestation, elective abortion can be performed to preserve the life or physical integrity of the woman. All abortions must be performed by a gynecologist in an approved institution [25].

Supplemental Abortion/Reproductive Health Initiatives

In addition to legislative changes, the Romanian government improved family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) policies and services and increased access to safe abortion. With a grant from the World Bank, the Ministry of Health (MOH) opened 11 family planning referral centers and 230 family planning offices across the country by 1994 [26,27]. It then established the Family Planning and Sexual Education Unit, tasked with procuring contraceptives, developing national FP/RH campaigns, creating FP/RH training curricula for nursing and medical students and training medical practitioners in contraceptive counseling [18,28]. The World Bank loan also provided funding for new abortion medical equipment, such as electric vacuum aspirators. However, without follow-up funding for maintenance, abortion providers reverted to the use of the less-safe dilation and curettage [18].

In 2001, the Romanian government, with support from USAID and John Snow, Inc., established the Romanian Family Health Initiative, (RFHI), which increased access to FP/RH services, particularly for vulnerable populations. RFHI advocated for policy change allowing general practitioners to provide family planning, a task that was previously exclusive to gynecologists. RFHI also assisted the MOH in integrating FP/RH into primary care services [18,28].

In addition, RFHI established the National Family Planning Program (NFPP), to promote the expansion of FP/RH services at the primary health care level through three "pillars." The first pillar consisted of FP/RH training for primary medical care providers, which resulted in 5,105 family practitioners and 3,063 nurses providing contraceptive services by 2006 [28,29]. The second pillar used communication campaigns to increase demand for contraceptive methods among Romanian women, who relied heavily on abortion for fertility control [18,28,30,31]. NFPP's final pillar increased access to contraceptive methods by substantially reducing the cost of methods for vulnerable populations [28,30,32]. In its final years, 2005-2007, the RFHI provided post-abortion care and postpartum contraceptive counseling training to health care providers in 52 public obstetrics-gynecology clinics, which accounted for over half of the abortions performed in Romania [28].

Due to the efforts of the MOH, World Bank and RFPI initiatives, modern contraceptive prevalence steadily increased in Romania from 13.9% in 1993, to 29.5% in 1999 and 38.2% in 2004. Improvements in rural contraceptive prevalence were particularly marked during the years of the RFHI, rising from 20.9% in 1999 to 33.0% in 2004 [33-35]. The abortion rate also declined in recent years to a low of 27.1 per 1,000 women in 2006 [36].

Decline in Abortion-Related Mortality

Figure ​2 illustrates the dramatic decline in abortion-related mortality following policy reform in 1989. The annual abortion-related mortality ratio dropped from a high of 148 per 100,000 live births in 1989 to 58 per 100,000 in the year immediately following. While 87% of maternal deaths were due to abortion complications in 1989, this proportion dropped to 69% by 1990 [19,24]. Abortion-related mortality continued to decline steadily in subsequent years, as access to safe abortion and comprehensive family planning improved. There was a parallel decline in overall maternal mortality for the same time period, suggesting that the majority of maternal deaths prior to the policy reform were attributable to unsafe abortions. By 2006, the overall maternal mortality ratio dropped to 15 per 100,000 live births, and the abortion-related mortality ratio fell to 5 per 100,000 live births [24].

Figure 2

Total vs. Abortion-related Maternal Deaths per 100,000 Live Births in Romania, 1970-2005: This figure compares the number of abortion-related maternal deaths against total number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in Romania prior to and following...

South Africa

South African Abortion Policy Reform

Despite a purported policy change to overturn an abortion ban in 1975, stringent restrictions perpetuated barriers to accessing safe abortion services (Act No. 72). As a result, the majority of South African women continued to terminate pregnancies through unsafe means, leading to annual unsafe abortions estimates of 120,000-250,000 during the 1975-1996 period [37-39]. By 1994, unsafe abortions had become a long-standing and significant threat to women's health in South Africa [38].

The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (CTOP) of 1996 was enacted by the post-apartheid African National Congress government on October 26, 1996 and implemented on February 1, 1997 [40]. Under the new policy, women have the right to abortion on request during the first 12 weeks of gestation, to protect the health and well-being of the mother or fetus and for reasons of rape/incest between 13-20 weeks (with approval of one physician), and after the 20th week if mother or fetus is at risk of harm (approved by two physicians or one physician and a midwife). These rights were extended to all women in South Africa, including minors; no parental consent is required. Abortion services are provided by trained midwives, nurses or doctors working in licensed facilities, designated by the government as having appropriate equipment and adequate access to emergency care services. All abortion services in the public sector are provided free of charge [41]. An amendment of the CTOP in 2008 increased access to abortion care by further decentralizing control of facility licensing to the provincial level and expanding provider cadres to include trained nurses [42].

Supplemental Abortion/Reproductive Health Initiatives

Rapid expansion of abortion services into resource-poor South Africa was achieved through the distribution of low-cost technology (manual vacuum aspiration [MVA] with misoprostol for cervical dilation), supported by external donors. Within the first year of enacting the CTOP, 31,312 legal abortions were performed in designated facilities [43,44]. Despite the rise in safe abortions, the majority of procedures were performed in tertiary hospitals in large urban centers, while abortions in primary health centers, particularly in rural regions, remained limited [45]. By the end of the first year, less than one third of designated hospitals and facilities were providing abortion services, due to lack of trained personnel [46].

To address the training issue, the South African government established the National Abortion Care Programme (NACP) in 1998, which expanded high-quality abortion care services to public clinics and health centers through: 1) training providers in low-cost techniques for safe abortion; 2) training midwives in managing incomplete abortions and performing first trimester abortions with MVA; and 3) training midwives in post-abortion contraceptive counseling. The NACP held national workshops in which physicians or midwives from each province were trained as trainers in abortion care provision and tasked with providing additional training and services in their respective provinces [47]. In addition, the Midwifery Abortion Care Training Programme was developed through local and international private/public health partnerships. These groups established guidelines for the training of nurse midwives, provided national training for registered midwives, and conducted an evaluation of midwives' skill and knowledge in abortion care following training. A national training program for registered midwives commenced in November 1998. By the end of 1999, 103 midwives were certified as abortion providers and prepared to educate other midwives in their home provinces [47-49].

Despite logistical advances, safe abortion advocates were met with some resistance from the medical community on the basis of personal views on abortion. To counteract negative attitudes towards abortion services, over 4,000 nurses, midwives and primary care doctors were enrolled in values clarification workshops designed to facilitate discussion around abortion opinions in the year following the passage of the CTOP [49,50]. Workshop evaluations showed positive changes in attitudes towards new law and an increased interest in providing abortion services [50].

As a result of values clarification workshops, training programs and provider capacity building, by the year 2000, 32% (92/292) of designated facilities were providing services and by 2003, 62% (189/306) of designated facilities offered abortion services [51,52]. By 2006, 17% of all community health clinics were authorized to provide abortion services [53].

The decentralization of the health care system following the ANC's ascension in 1994 resulted in parallel improvements in reproductive health services. South Africa has a history of high contraceptive prevalence, but from 1998 to 2003 contraceptive prevalence increased from 61% to 65% among all sexually active women. In particular, the disparities that existed between rural and urban users of contraception all but disappeared from 1998 (67% urban, 54% rural) to 2003 (66% urban, 62% rural) [43,54,55]. In 1997, South Africa also established the National Committee on Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths (NCCEMD), which audits maternal deaths in 200 hospitals across the country and makes recommendations to the Department of Health for improvements in maternal care. Declines in abortion related mortality have been attributed to the work of the NCCEMD and the recommendations stemming from their findings [56]. Based on the confidential reporting system, the NCCEMD is able to ascertain the major causes of maternal deaths in South Africa [43,57].

Decline in Abortion-Related Mortality

The abortion law of 1996 was the first step towards significant reductions in unsafe abortions. The abortion care program and systematic shifts in reproductive health provision was followed by notable declines in abortion-related mortality. Figure ​3 shows a decrease in abortion-related deaths in the period following the CTOP. In 1994, complications from unsafe abortion led to 32.69 deaths per 1,000 abortions. By 1998, only 0.80 deaths per 1,000 were reported and this number remained steady or dropped in subsequent years. Furthermore, as compared to 1994, there was a 91% drop in deaths related to unsafe abortion in the 1998-2001 period [58]. By the 2005-2007 period, annual abortion-related deaths accounted for only 3.3% of all maternal deaths [59].

Figure 3

Abortion-Related Maternal Deaths per 1,000 abortions in South Africa, 1994- 2007: This figure describes the change in abortion-related maternal deaths following the change in South Africa's abortion law in 1996 using a rate of deaths per 1,000 abortions...


Abortion Policy Reform

The current abortion law in Bangladesh is based on highly-restrictive mid-19th century British colonial laws, which only permit abortion if the life of the woman is at risk (Penal Code of India of 1860, sections 312-316). Despite the end of colonial rule, local contextual influences resulted in persistence of the abortion ban. However, a menstrual regulation (MR) policy was established by government independence in 1971. Defined as "an interim method to establish a case of non-pregnancy in a woman who is at risk of being pregnant", MR procedures may be performed up to 8 weeks since the last menstrual period (LMP) by a trained paramedic and up to 10 weeks by a trained physician [60,61].

MR services were first introduced in a few urban government family planning clinics in 1974, but by 1979, the government of Bangladesh (GOB) included MR services in the national family planning program. Currently, about 4000 government facilities and 200 NGO clinics offer MR services [61,62]. Private providers offering MR range from trained physicians and paramedic personnel to untrained or traditional practitioners [61].

Widespread access to MR was achieved primarily through training and support of paramedic family welfare visitors (FWV), especially at primary level facilities. Nearly 6,500 FWVs and 8,000 physicians practice MR in government health facilities, with female FWVs exclusively providing MR at the primary health center level [61,63]. Training and support for the MR program is a result of strong NGO-governmental partnerships and continuous efforts from donor organizations to maintain funding for the program. Three local MR NGOs conduct provider training, monitor MR kit distribution and provide MR services in their own sites. In addition to supporting provider salaries, facility space and equipment, the GOB provides services, supervises MR activities in public facilities, and procures and distributes MVA kits [60,62,63].

Supplemental Abortion/Reproductive Health Initiatives

In addition to development of the MR program, there were also advances in emergency obstetric care and family planning in Bangladesh. Beginning in 1993, the MOHFW and UNFPA upgraded emergency obstetric care in all 64 maternal and child welfare centers, leading to marked increases in utilization of services [64]. Equipment upgrades and training of medical officers and nurses in treatment of obstetric complications took place from 2000 to 2004 in all 59 district hospitals and 120 of the 400 sub-district hospitals nationally [65]. However, investment in obstetric care remains relatively low in Bangladesh; the maternal mortality ratio at the national level was most recently estimated at 338 per 100,000 in 2008, down from 570 per 100,000 in 2000 [66,67].

Since independence, Bangladesh has also implemented strong FP/RH programs to improve access to and utilization of contraceptive methods. As a result, the total contraceptive prevalence rate for Bangladesh married women of reproductive age increased from 8% in the mid-1970's to 56% in 2007 (48% modern methods) [68-70]. Consequently, the total fertility rate in the same period dropped from 6.3 births per women in 1970-75 to 2.7 births per woman in 2006 [68,70].

In addition to national improvements in reproductive health and maternal care, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICCDR, B) supported rigorous maternal health and obstetric care upgrades and family planning interventions in one-half of the Matlab sub-district of Bangladesh since 1977 [71]. At a comparison research site, the other half of the Matlab sub-district received standard interventions supported by the government and made available nationally [71]. Both the intervention and non-intervention areas have access to regular government-provided MR services.

In the Matlab intervention area, obstetric services include posting of two midwives in each health center, a specialized obstetric clinic and expanded referral and transport for obstetric emergencies [70]. These provisions were made in addition to pre-existing or upgraded national services in maternal health care, as mentioned above. The comparison area in Matlab received routine maternal health services provided by the government, including contraceptive provision and MR, although access to basic obstetric facilities remained limited. Overall, maternal health services in the intervention area are more accessible and of higher quality than those in the comparison area [71]. Evidence from a 2007 study of maternal mortality in Matlab intervention versus comparison areas suggests that overall maternal deaths due to direct obstetric causes in both sites declined in the period from 1976 to 2005, but were substantially lower in the Matlab intervention throughout the study period [71].

The Matlab intervention area also received enhanced FP/RH services. Community health workers visit married women of reproductive age in their homes at regular intervals - initially every two weeks and since 1997, every month -for contraceptive counseling and method delivery and to track demographic and health events. Special MCH centers are also available for FP/RH services [72]. A comparison of contraceptive prevalence and abortion rates from 1979 and 1998 between the intervention and non-intervention areas in Matlab found that abortion rates were significantly lower in the region with better family planning services [72].

Decline in Abortion-Related Mortality

Abortion mortality rates were compared between the Matlab intervention area and the comparison site receiving only government programs. Special efforts to track pregnancy-related deaths have occurred since 1976, including interviews with family members [71,72]. This longitudinal surveillance provides a unique opportunity to track and compare long-term trends in maternal mortality in the two areas.

Figure ​4 compares the percent of maternal deaths due to abortion in both the intervention and comparison areas in Matlab. In the intervention area, the proportion of maternal deaths due to abortion dropped substantially from 24% in 1976-1985 to 11% in 1996-2005. On the other hand, the proportion of abortion deaths remained fairly stable during the same period in the comparison area: 17% in 1976-1985 and 15% in 1996-2005, with a slight increase to 23% between 1986 and 1995. During the same period, the rate of abortion-related deaths declined in both service areas; however, by 2005, the rate of death in the intervention area (12 per 100,000 pregnancies) was half that of the government area (24 per 100,000 pregnancies) [69]. These comparisons illustrate the importance of the additional FP/RH interventions, above and beyond the menstrual regulation program, in decreasing abortion-related mortality in Bangladesh.

Figure 4

Proportion of Maternal Deaths due to Abortion and Abortion-Related Deaths in Matlab, Bangladesh, Intervention vs. Comparison areas, 1976 2005: This figure compares the proportion of maternal deaths due to abortion and the number of abortion-related deaths...


Liberalization of restrictive abortion laws is a critical step in transforming harmful clandestine procedures into safe terminations administered and monitored by trained professionals. However, reforms in abortion policy alone, which are often subject to local contextual influences, may not be sufficient for substantial change in practices or, ultimately, women's health. The countries in this study offer unique insights into the multi-faceted nature of abortion reform.

In all three cases examined here, liberal policies---with broad indications for legal abortion---were followed by strategies to implement abortion services, scale up accessibility and establish complementary reproductive and maternal health services. In Romania, the government and its partners coordinated efforts to train doctors in preferred abortion techniques, expand access to contraception, and address women's dependence on abortion as a method of fertility control. In South Africa, appropriate abortion technologies were rapidly disseminated throughout the country and abortion services were decentralized through training of physicians and midwives. Bangladesh, while not formally changing its abortion law, followed the establishment of a new menstrual regulation policy with national-scale MR training and improvements in family planning and obstetric care. Both South Africa and Bangladesh also made great strides in decentralizing and disseminating abortion care through the training of mid-level providers such as midwives, nurses and paramedical personnel. The examples in this study suggest that a confluence of political will, funding, partnerships between government and NGOs, additional policies supporting change in reproductive services and an overall commitment to improving women's health may contribute to declines in abortion-related mortality. In particular, investments in improved family planning services are essential to preventing unwanted pregnancies, thereby reducing overall demand for abortion. All three cases also demonstrate the important role of research infrastructure in tracking and documenting changes in abortion-related services and outcomes.

Despite their achievements, the long-term experience of these countries highlights the importance of continued support in maintaining gains made in women's health following changes in abortion policies and practices. Romania made early efforts to provide adequate abortion technologies, such as equipment for electric vacuum aspirators; however, with waning financial support, supply lines withered and physicians were forced to revert back to older, less safe methods of inducing abortion such as dilation and curettage. The resultant reduction in the quality of abortion services is compounded with continued gaps in post-abortion care. In South Africa, despite both political will and technical backing to decentralize and disseminate abortion services, safe abortion services are still highly concentrated in urban areas, leaving underserved sites challenged by limitations in providers and supplies. South Africa also continues to struggle with high levels of abortion-related stigma within the medical community. Furthermore, medical abortion drugs and services are only available in the private sector, greatly limiting access to their use. The slight rise in abortion deaths during the period from 2005 to 2007 could be due in part to a decline in abortion services in recent years and to a possible confounding of HIV/AIDS deaths among women of reproductive age in South Africa. In Bangladesh, family planning and obstetric services may not be comprehensive at all sites, leaving an unmet need in some vulnerable populations within the country. The current supply chains for MVA instruments and other supplies needed for MR services are also erratic, leading to periodic interruptions in supplies and re-use of MVA instruments beyond recommended applications. Improved access to high-quality second-trimester abortion services is also needed. General economic, social and cultural barriers may also play an important part in limiting access to comprehensive abortion care in all three study countries.

This review has a few limitations. Due to the reliance on published, available data, we may have omitted other countries with liberalized abortion laws and changes in abortion mortality where data were not available. For this reason, countries such as Turkey and Cuba, where there is anecdotal evidence of a decline in abortion-related mortality after abortion law reform and provision of legal abortion, were not included. Moreover, it was also not possible to include comparison countries where legal reform was not immediately accompanied by supplemental reproductive services. In these cases, such as in Zambia and Ghana, a failure to provide adequate safe abortion and reproductive health services following law reform has resulted in both a dearth of information on attempts to scale-up service provision as well as persistently high maternal and abortion-related death rates [73,74]. In Zambia, despite law change in 1972, there has been little done to promote behavioral or service provision changes until recently [73]. The abortion law in Ghana was liberalized in 1985, but coordinated efforts to improve abortion services and increase awareness of the law have only been implemented as recently as 2006 [75]. In Cambodia, where abortion law reform in 1997 was originally not followed by targeted service provision, efforts are currently underway to increase access to safe abortion and reproductive health care, providing a forthcoming case study on delayed introduction of supplemental abortion and reproductive health services [76]. Other countries with more recent abortion law reform and roll-out of safe abortion include Nepal (2002) and Ethiopia (2005), which will afford opportunities for further research on the impact of policy change on maternal health [77]. Finally, the current review relies primarily on case study analysis methods, which cannot provide casual links between factors in abortion reform and resulting declines in abortion- and does not account for other possible ecological factors that may have contributed to changes in abortion-related mortality in the study countries.

Abortion related mortality continues to play a large role in all-too-high rates of maternal death in many other countries. The solutions for reducing the significant human and economic toll of abortion deaths and injuries are well-known, especially expanding access to effective modern methods of contraception and to safe abortion. The three countries highlighted in this paper have all managed to make considerable progress in implementing many of these solutions, in spite of limited resources. Romania and South Africa also underscore the rapid improvements possible in women's health once safe abortion becomes widely available. The evidence is compelling. For many countries that have yet to act, the political commitment to alter the current landscape of preventable deaths from abortion awaits.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

JB conceptualized the study and contributed to the writing, research, data analysis, editing and coordination of the paper. KA contributed to the research, methodological design, data analysis and editing of the paper. GS contributed to the research, data analysis, writing and editing of the paper.

All authors have read and approved the final version of the paper.


An earlier version of this manuscript was presented as a poster at the 2008 annual conference of the American Public Health Association. The authors wish to thank Julia Cleaver and staff of the Ipas Resource Center for their assistance with the literature search. We also wish to acknowledge Ronnie Johnson, Heidi Johnston and Mosotho Gabriel for their review of individual country case studies.


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  • David HP. Romania ends compulsory childbearing. Population Today. 1990;18:4–10. [33] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 1995. Reproductive health survey Romania, 1993: Final report. Atlanta, GA: CDC.
  • Romanian Ministry of Health (MOH) National maternal mortality statistics. Bucharest: MOH; 1993. Centre for Health Statistics.
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  • JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. (JSI), United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Scaling up access to reproductive health services in Romania: The Romanian family health initiative 2001-2007. John Snow, Inc. 2008. Accessed 28 July 2009.
  • Gasco M, Hesdgecock D, Wright C. Reaching the poor: Scaling up integrated family planning services (Romania) John Snow, Inc. 2008. Accessed on 28 July 2009.
  • World Health Organization (WHO) Abortion and contraception in Romania: A strategic assessment of policy, programme and research issues. Geneva: WHO; 2004.
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  • Romanian Ministry of Health and Family. The sexual and reproductive health strategy of the Ministry of Health. Bucharest: MOH; 2003.
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  • Department of National Health and Population Development. Abortions - An emotional volcano. Epidemiological Comments. 1991;18:213–20.
  • Rees H, Katzenellenogen J, Shabodien R. et al. The epidemiology of incomplete abortion in South Africa. South African Medical Journal. 1997;87:432–7.[PubMed]
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  • Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act: Act 92. South African Government Gazette. 1996;377(17602)
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  • De Jonge ETM, Pattinson RC, Mantel GD. Termination of pregnancy (TOP) in South Africa in its first year: Is TOP getting on top of the problem of unsafe abortion? Sexual and Reproductive Health Bulletin. 1999;7:14–15.
  • Dickson-Tetteh K, Billings DL. Abortion care services provided by registered midwives in South Africa. International Family Planning Perspectives. 2002;28:144–50. doi: 10.2307/3088257.[Cross Ref]
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  • Dickson-Tetteh K, Rees H. In: Safe motherhood initiatives: Critical issues. Berer M, Ravindran T, editor. London: Blackwell Science; 1999. Efforts to reduce abortion-related mortality in South Africa; pp. 190–95.
  • Dickson-Tetteh K, Gabriel M, Rees M, Gringle R, Winkler J. Abortion care manual: A guide for the training of registered midwives in termination of pregnancy, management of incomplete abortions and related reproductive health matters. Johannesburg, South Africa: Reproductive Health Research Unit and Ipas; 1998.
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  • Mitchell EM, Trueman K, Gabriel M, Bock LB. Building alliances from ambivalence: Evaluation of abortion values clarification workshops with stakeholders in South Africa. African Journal of Reproductive Health. 2005;9(3):89–99. doi: 10.2307/3583415.[PubMed][Cross Ref]
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  • Towards access to reproductive choice - 5 year review of the implantation of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996: 1997-2002. South Africa: Reproductive Rights Alliance; 2002. Reproductive Rights Alliance.
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  • Jewkes R, Rees H, Dickson K, Brown H, Levin J. The impact of age on the epidemiology of incomplete abortions in South Africa after the legislative change. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 2005;112:355–359. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2004.00422.x.[PubMed][Cross Ref]
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  • Akhter HH. Prepared for the Expanding Access: Advancing the Roles of Midlevel Providers in Menstrual Regulation and Elective Abortion Care conference. Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa; 2002. Expanding access: Midlevel provider in menstrual regulation, Bangladesh experience; pp. 2–6. December 2001.
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  • Gill Z, Ahmed JU. Experience for Bangladesh: Implementing emergency obstetric care as part of the reproductive health agenda. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics. 2004;85:213–20. doi: 10.1016/j.ijgo.2004.01.004.[PubMed][Cross Ref]
  • Islam MT, Hawue YA, Waxman R, Bhuiyan AB. Implementation of emergency obstetric care training in Bangladesh: Lessons learned. Reproductive Health Matters. 2006;14:61–72. doi: 10.1016/S0968-8080(06)27229-X.[PubMed][Cross Ref]
  • Hogan MC, Foreman KJ, Naghavi M, Ahn SY. et al. Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980-2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal s. The Lancet. 2010;375:1609–23. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60518-1.[PubMed][Cross Ref]
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  • Lithur NO. Expanding community wareness of abortion as a reproductive health issue in Ghana. African Journal of Reproductive Health. 2004;8:70–74. doi: 10.2307/3583308.

Abortion in Romania is currently legal as an elective procedure during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, and for medical reasons at later stages of pregnancy.[1] In the year 2004, there were 216,261 live births and 191,000 reported abortions,[2] meaning that 46% of the 407,261 reported pregnancies that year ended in abortion.

Abortion was also legal on-demand from 1957 to 1966.[3] From 1967 to 1990 abortion was severely restricted, in an effort of the Communist leadership to increase the fertility rate of the country.


Before communism[edit]

Abortion was illegal in Romania as in other European countries, but Romania has a history of very lenient punishments for abortion, compared to many other European countries during that historical period. The Penal Code of 1864, which followed shortly after the union of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and was in force between 1865 and 1936, banned abortion. Article 246 punished the person who performed the abortion with "minimul recluziunei" (a shorter form of imprisonment), while the pregnant woman who procured her own abortion was only punished with 6 months-2 years imprisonment. The punishment increased for the persons who performed abortion if they were medical workers, or if the pregnant woman died.[4]

Abortion remained illegal under Romania's 1936 Criminal Code, except if needed to save the pregnant woman's life or if the child risked inheriting a severe genetic disorder. Nevertheless, the punishments for both abortionists and pregnant women who procured an abortion were extremely lenient, almost symbolical, compared to many other European countries. Articles 482-485 of that code dealt with abortion.[5] The punishment for both the person performing an abortion and the pregnant woman who procured the abortion were 3-6 months if she was unmarried; and 6 months-1 year if she was married. The punishments increased if the woman didn't consent to the abortion, if she was severely injured, or if she died. Medical personnel or pharmacists involved in performing abortions were barred for practicing the profession for 1-3 years. The significance of such legal provisions must be understood in an international context: for instance as late as 1943, in France, abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud was executed for performing abortions.

Abortion on demand was first legalized in Romanian in 1957 and stayed legal until 1966, when it outlawed by Nicolae Ceaușescu. It was legalized again after the Romanian Revolution.

During the communist regime[edit]

While Romania became a communist state at the end of 1947, this section focuses on the time period from 1966 to 1989 during Nicolae Ceaușescu's rule.

Decree 770[edit]

In 1957 the procedure was officially legalized in Romania, following which 80% of pregnancies ended in abortion, mainly due to the lack of effective contraception. By 1966, the national birthrate had fallen from 19.1 per 1,000 in 1960 to 14.3 per 1,000, a decline that was attributed to the legalization of abortion nine years previously.[6] In an effort to ensure "normal demographic growth", Decree 770 was authorized by Nicolae Ceaușescu's government. The decree criminalized abortion except in the following cases:

  • women over 45 (lowered to 40 in 1974, raised back to 45 in 1985)[6][7]
  • women who had already delivered and reared four children (raised to five in 1985)[6][7]
  • women whose life would be threatened by carrying to term due to medical complications[6][7]
  • women whose fetuses were malformed[8]
  • women who were pregnant through rape or incest[6][7]

The effect of this policy was a sudden transition from a birth rate of 14.3 per 1,000 in 1966 to 27.4 per 1,000 in 1967, though it fell back to 14.3 in 1983.[6]

Initially, this natalist policy was completed with mandatory gynecological revisions and penalties for single women over 25 and married couples without children,[7] but starting in 1977, all "childless persons", regardless of sex or marital status, were fined monthly "contributions" from their wages, whose size depended on the sector in which the person worked.[6] The state glorified child-rearing, and in 1977 assigned official decorations and titles to women who went above and beyond the call of duty and had more than the required number of children.[6]

Upon the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965, Ceaușescu succeeded to the leadership of Romania’s Communist Party as General Secretary. Like the previous leader, Ceaușescu officially promoted gender equality, but also desired to increase the nation's population.[6][9] In his rhetoric, he stressed the "distinguished role and noble mission" found in child-rearing, and promised state-sponsored assistance in the form of childcare centers, accessible medical care, maternity leave, and work protection so that women could combine large families with work outside the home.[6] Ceaușescu's ideas of mandating large families were inspired by Stalinist Soviet Union (abortion was illegal in USSR between 1936 and 1955), as well as by his own conservative upbringing in rural Olt county.[10] Ceaușescu promoted an ideal of the superwoman, active in the workforce, politically involved, raising many children, taking care of the household chores, and succeeding in doing all these at the same time. There were no attempts to provide for equitable sharing of chores within the family (between the husband and wife) - like most communist regimes, Romanian politics too considered it sufficient to promote gender equality in the public sphere, not the private one; the personal relations and gender roles within the family were ignored.[11] Ceaușescu's government was unable to provide much of its promised assistance to families, leaving many families in difficult situations and unable to cope,[6] with the natalist policy being a contributor to the severe problem of child abandonment, where large numbers of children ended living in Romanian orphanages, infamous for institutionalised neglect and abuse.[10] During the 1990s, the street children seen in Romanian cities were a reminder of this policy.[12] A relatively similar policy of restricted reproductive rights during that period also existed in Communist Albania, under Enver Hoxha.

The 1980s austerity policy in Romania imposed by Ceaușescu in order to pay out the external debt incurred by the state in the 1970s, aggravated poverty in the country making it even more difficult to raise children. The vast majority of children who lived in the communist orphanages were not actually orphans, but were simply children whose parents could not afford to raise them.[13] There were also other social problems, in particular the overcrowding of both homes and school classrooms; as Ceaușescu's natalist policy also coincided with mass population migration from rural areas to cities.[14] Most of these families were housed in standardized apartment blocks that were built in large numbers across Romanian cities during systematization.

Ceaușescu's desire for large families proved unrealistic within Romanian society, which at the time was plagued by poverty, and where the state, despite its rhetoric, provided only nominal social benefits and programmes. As a result, rates of illegal abortions were very high, especially in big cities. Realizing that the demographic policies had not worked as planned, the government's campaigns became very aggressive after 1984: women of reproductive age were very closely monitored, were required to undergo regular gynaecological examinations at their place of employment, and investigations were carried out to determine the cause of all miscarriages. Increased taxes on childlessness and on unmarried persons were enforced. [15] In 1985, a woman who worked at the APACA textile factory died after an illegal abortion, and her case was used by the authorities as an example on the necessity to avoid abortion and obey the law.[16][17]

In addition to outlawing abortion, Ceaușescu also promoted early marriage (immediately after finishing school), made divorce very difficult to obtain, and criminalized adultery and homosexuality in the 1969 Criminal Code even if done in private and without "public scandal" (a difference from the previous 1936 code). The policies towards unmarried people were harsh: they received very poor housing (named cămine de nefamilişti[18]) and were considered unfit citizens.

Enforcement of the decree and social control[edit]

To enforce the decree, society was strictly controlled. Motherhood was described as "the meaning of women's lives" and praised in sex education courses and women's magazines, and various written materials were distributed detailing information on prenatal and child care, the benefits of children, ways to ensure marital harmony, and the consequences of abortion.[6] Contraceptives disappeared from the shelves and were soon only available to educated urban women with access to the black market, many of them with Hungarian roots.[6] In 1986, any woman working for or attending a state institution was forced to undergo at least annual gynecological exams to ensure a satisfying level of reproductive health as well as detect pregnancy, which were followed until birth.[6] Women with histories of abortion were watched particularly carefully.[6]

Medical practitioners were also expected to follow stringent policies and were held partially responsible for the national birthrate. If they were caught breaking any aspect of the abortion law, they were to be incarcerated, though some prosecutors were paid off in exchange for a lesser sentence.[6] Each administrative region had a Disciplinary Board for Health Personnel, which disciplined all law-breaking health practitioners and on occasion had show trials to make examples of people. Sometimes, however, punishments were lessened for cooperation.[6] Despite the professional risks involved, many doctors helped women determined to have abortions, recognizing that if they did not, she would turn to a more dangerous, life-threatening route. This was done by falsely diagnosing them with an illness that qualified them for an abortion, such as diabetes or hepatitis, or prescribing them drugs that were known to counter-induce pregnancy, such as chemotherapy or antimalarial drugs.[6] When a physician did not want to help or could not be bribed to perform an abortion, however, women went to less experienced abortionists or used old remedies.[6]

From 1979 to 1988, the number of abortions increased, save for a decline in 1984-1985.[6] Despite this, many unwanted children were born, as their parents could scarcely afford to care for the children they already had, and were subsequently abandoned in hospitals or orphanages. Some of these children were purposely given AIDS-infected transfusions in orphanages; others were trafficked internationally through adoption.[6] Those born in this period, especially between 1966 and 1972, are nicknamed the decreţei (singular decreţel), a word with a negative nuance due to the perceived mental and physical damage due to the risky pregnancies and failed illegal abortions.[19] Over 9,000 women died between 1965 and 1989 due to complications arising from illegal abortions.[6]

After 1989[edit]

This policy was reversed in 1990, after the Romanian Revolution, and, since that time, abortion has been legal on request in Romania.

There have been attempts to restrict the practice of abortion, such as in 2012, when Sulfina Barbu, a MP of the Democratic Liberal Party proposed a legislative initiative, requiring women wanting to undergo an abortion to attend psychological counseling sessions, and to "reflect" for five days. Such attempts have been claimed to be motivated by the demographic downfall of Romania; and have been strongly criticized.[20]

Mifepristone (medical abortion) was registered in 2008.[21][22]

Legal framework under the 2014 Penal Code[edit]

The new Penal Code, which came into force in 2014, regulates the procedure of abortion. Article 201 (1) punishes the performing of an abortion when done under any of these following circumstances: (a) outside medical institutions or medical offices authorized for this purpose; (b) by a person who is not a certified physician in the domain of obstetrics and gynecology and free to practice this profession; or (c) if the pregnancy has exceeded fourteen weeks. An exception to the fourteen weeks limit is provided by section (6) of Article 201, which stipulates that performing an abortion is not an offense if done for therapeutic purposes by a certified doctor until twenty-four weeks of pregnancy, and even after the twenty-four weeks limit, if the abortion is needed for therapeutic purposes "in the interest of the mother or the fetus". If the woman did not consent to the abortion; if she was seriously injured by the procedure; or if she dies as a result of it, the penalties are increased - sections (2) and (3) of Article 201. If the acts are done by a doctor, apart from criminal punishment, the doctor is also prohibited from practicing the profession in the future - section (4) of Article 201. Section (7) of Article 201 stipulates that a pregnant woman who provokes her own abortion will not be punished.[1]

Abortion rates after 1989[edit]

According to the National Institute of Statistics, the rate of abortions since 1990 is as follows[23]

YearAbortionsPer 1,000 womenPer 1,000 live-births

United Nations data puts the abortion rate at 21.3 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 years in 2010.[25] Romania has a high prevalence of abortion: in a 2007 survey 50% of women said they had undergone an abortion during their lifetime.[26]

Future effects of the communist abortion policy[edit]

Ceaușescu's demographic policies are feared of having very serious effects in the future. In Romania, the generations born under Ceaușescu are very large (especially the late 1960s and the 1970s), while those born in the 1990s and 2000s are very small. This is believed to cause a very serious demographic shock when the former generations retire, as there will not be sufficient young people to form the workforce and support the elderly.[27][28][29]

See also[edit]


Graph showing the birth rate in Romania. A huge surge of the birth rate in 1967 is the most prominent feature of the graph
  1. ^ ab"Noul Cod Penal (2014)". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  2. ^Abortion statistics of Romania up to 2004., Retrieved 2007-08-04.
  3. ^"Archived copy"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 2012-10-07. 
  4. ^Systems, Indaco. "Codul Penal din 1864". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  5. ^Systems, Indaco. "Codul Penal din 1936". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  6. ^ abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvKligman, Gail. "Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu's Romania". In Ginsburg, Faye D.; Rapp, Rayna, eds. Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995 :234-255. Unique Identifier : AIDSLINE KIE/49442.
  7. ^ abcdeScarlat, Sandra. "'Decreţeii': produsele unei epoci care a îmbolnăvit România" ("'Scions of the Decree': Products of an Era that Sickened Romania"), Evenimentul Zilei, May 17, 2005.
  8. ^Horga, Mihai; Gerdts, Caitlin; Potts, Malcolm (1 January 2013). "The remarkable story of Romanian women9s struggle to manage their fertility". J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care. 39 (1): 2–4. doi:10.1136/jfprhc-2012-100498. PMID 23296845. Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  9. ^Kligman, Gail. The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu's Romania. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.
  10. ^ abSteavenson, Wendell (10 December 2014). "Ceausescu's children". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  11. ^"Imaginea şi rolul femeii în perioada comunistă". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  12. ^"Romania's Street Children". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  13. ^"BBC NEWS - Europe - What happened to Romania's orphans?". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  14. ^Adriana Mihaela Soaita. "Overcrowding and 'under-occupancy' in Romania : a case study of housing inequality". Retrieved 1 October 2017. 
  15. ^"ABORTION POLICY"(DOC). Retrieved 1 October 2017. 
  16. ^"Povestea de groază din spatele „afacerii decreţeilor" comunişti. Numărul terifiant al româncelor moarte din cauza avorturilor ratate în perioada 1966-1989". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  17. ^"Decreţeii – generaţia copiilor născuţi de frica morţii". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  18. ^"Viata intr-o cutie de chibrituri". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  19. ^decreţel in the 123Urban dictionary
  20. ^"Proiectul legii anti-avort - un atentat împotriva femeilor şi al familiilor - Romania Libera". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  21. ^"Gynuity Health Projects » List of Mifepristone Approval". Retrieved 1 October 2017. 
  22. ^Worrell, Marc. "Romania". Women on Waves. Retrieved 1 October 2017. 
  23. ^[1][permanent dead link]
  24. ^ ab"Peste 78.300 de avorturi în 2014, dintre care aproximativ 500 la fete sub 15 ani". Mediafax. Retrieved 2016-10-03. 
  25. ^"World Abortion Policies 2013". United Nations. 2013. Retrieved 3 March 2014. 
  27. ^"Ce se va intampla cand vor iesi la pensie „decreteii", cei 1,7 milioane de romani care sustin economia? - Ziarul Financiar". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  28. ^"Pensiile „decreţeilor" sunt o bombă cu ceas. Statul le poate plăti 15% din salariu la bătrâneţe - Ziarul Financiar". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  29. ^"APOCALIPSA pensiilor vine după 2030. Cum poate fi DEZAMORSATĂ BOMBA SOCIALA produsă de Ceaușescu printr-un DECRET ORIBIL". Retrieved 19 July 2017. 


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