It was the middle of summer, and the smell of ripening mirabelle plums filled the streets of Bucharest. Irina Mateescu was almost 18 and living with her grandparents. She had good grades, a boyfriend, and a late period which she was trying not think about.
“Eventually, I couldn’t ignore it any more. I saw a leaflet advertising free pregnancy tests. I didn’t have the money to buy one so I went to the address,” she recalls, 22 years later standing on the balcony of her new office.
The test was positive; she was eight weeks pregnant. Mateescu told the staff at the centre that she wanted an abortion, legal until 14 weeks in Romania, then to finish school. Instead, she was shown Silent Scream,the widely discredited 1984 US anti-abortion film. “They said it showed what happens during an abortion. That the baby, who is already a human, gets torn into pieces,” she says.
She left distraught. Staff called her grandparents’ phone every day to persuade Mateescu against an abortion. “I started thinking that I should keep it. I tried to convince my boyfriend that it’s our fault. That now we have to pay the price,” says Mateescu.
What she did not realise at the time was that the leaflet she was given offering support was actually advertising the services of a religious “pregnancy crisis centre”.
Pregnancy crisis centres (PCCs) first appeared in the US in the 1960s and gained popularity after the Roe v Wade ruling. They promised counselling to women with unplanned pregnancies – as an alternative to abortion. However, they have been criticised for not advertising their religious affiliation or stating their anti-abortion stance, leading to them being mistaken for abortion clinics. The medical information provided by PCCs has often been found to be counter to medical consensus.
“They try to discourage and prevent you from getting an abortion, either by shaming or by misinformation,” says Andrada Cilibiu from Centrul Filia, a women’s rights organisation. “The information they provide usually doesn’t have a medical basis. Instead they use fear.”
In Romania, the centres first appeared in the late 1990s, many founded by evangelicals from the US, with a mission to save “the unborn” in the former communist dictatorship. At the time, they faced an uphill battle. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s blanket abortion ban – which resulted in the death of at least 10,000 women – and the scandal of mistreated orphans were fresh in Romanian memory.
Abortion was legalised soon after Ceaușescu’s execution in 1989. Until 2003, the rate of abortions exceeded the rate of births, in part because education in family planning remained poor in many parts of the country after the decades-long ban, and the medical infrastructure to deliver contraceptives had to be built from scratch.
But after 30 years, public hospitals are increasingly refusing to perform abortions on request, and the anti-choice movement is gaining influence. A recent investigation by Romanian media showed that in 11 out of 42 counties in Romania, no public hospital performed abortions last year. In a further four counties, fewer than four abortions were performed in public hospitals.
Cilibiu has collected data from 136 public hospitals as part of Centrul Fillia’s own research. She says that 70 cited religious or ethical concerns in their official responses as reasons for refusing abortion provision. “They quote the Bible, saying that doctors do not go to school to kill babies but to save lives,” she says. “They also explained the procedures they offer to convince women to keep the pregnancy.” These included anti-abortion counselling
Anti-abortion messaging has penetrated Romania’s public healthcare system, says Mateescu, who defied pressure 22 years ago, obtained an abortion and today is a qualified midwife and reproductive rights advocate. “Older doctors pressure younger colleagues to limit abortion access,” she says. “They don’t want to ‘make waves’, but there is a religious aspect as well. They say they don’t want to go against God.”
“I asked a hospital in [the eastern city of] Iași where their family planning office is,” Mateescu says. “I was told it was at the church in the courtyard [in Romania many hospitals have Eastern Orthodox churches attached to them]. In the church, it said: ‘family planning and pregnancy crisis centre’; everyone was sent there to speak to the priest.”
None of the public hospitals in Iași have performed abortion since 2021 according to latest data.
“In the 1990s, most of the population was pro-choice due to the national trauma of the abortion ban. This is starting to change,” says Alexandra Columban from Actedo, an NGO based in Transylvania. “Maybe it’s collective amnesia, but also the lobbying of religious organisations, national and American.”
Transylvania, a region in the north-west of the country, is home to the largest evangelical communities in Romania. In some smaller cities, PCCs have embedded themselves in multiple branches of public services, creating a barrier to abortion access. Among 22 PCCS identified in Transylvania by the Guardian, at least 14 were receiving funds from US charities
Oradea, a city on the Hungarian border, is home to an evangelical university and two PCCs, financed by Americans. It is also the capital of Bihor county, which ranks fifth in the country in terms of the number of teen mothers.
Many public services in the city hold contracts with Centrul Puls, a local PCC established in 2003 by a Christian charity based in Pennsylvania, US. The centre, accredited by the Romanian government as a social services provider, delivered “counselling” to women seeking abortion at the city hospital – the last public facility in Bihor still performing abortions – until 2020.
The city’s social services continue to refer women with unplanned pregnancies to the centre. Puls also delivers abstinence-only “purity programmes” in technical colleges in Oradea.
“We offer real information about abortion,” says Miorika Cristea from Florida, who established Precious Little Feet, Oradea’s first PCC, in 2001. She believes that doctors who offer abortions are motivated by financial gain and withhold information from patients.
The women who turn to Cristea’s centre are taken for a free ultrasound. “It’s to show them what they will do if they have an abortion,” says Lidia Dan, a worker at the centre. “After they hear the heartbeat, they get emotional, they cry.”
This approach was adopted by US states such as Kentucky, which required patients to listen to the foetal heartbeat and watch an ultrasound before an abortion. Dan hopes that one day such law will be introduced in Romania.
“I was called by God,” says Cristea, who emigrated from Yugoslavia to the US in 1984 and subsequently began following Baptist teaching. “During prayer, God gave me a vision of heaven, and everywhere there were children running towards me saying ‘also me’ in Romanian. Later I realised these will be the children saved from abortion.”
In 2000, she pursued training at a PCC in Florida, aiming to bring the model to Romania. “The concept of pregnancy crisis centres in Romania was very new at the time,” she says.
Today, Precious Little Feet is well established in local communities in two Transylvanian cities, Oradea and Deva. “We have a long list of people we collaborate with,” says Cristea. “Doctors in the medical field, adoption agencies, foster carers, social workers.”
“Recently, social services in Deva reached out to us to develop an educational programme aimed at teenagers – that’s a big thing,” Cristea says.
She hopes that abortion will end in Romania during her lifetime. “But if it doesn’t,” she says. “I’m sure God has people who will continue fighting for life. I am not alone.”
There is a direct link between the American and Romanian anti-abortion movements, says Daniela Draghici, a reproductive rights advocate. “Pro-choice groups have no chance to compete with these evangelical organisations that get money and technical assistance from the US,” she says.
Draghici had a “kitchen-table abortion” during Ceaușescu’s regime. “I almost died. It was in the late 70s, I was a student,” she says.
“I was taken to a house in the countryside. An old woman was boiling metal instruments on the stove. It smelled like medical alcohol. I got up on the table and she put a rag in my mouth – I’ll never forget that – so the neighbours would not hear me,” Draghici recalls. “There was no anaesthesia.”
But the abortion was incomplete, Draghici realised a few days later. “This time someone else put me in touch with a doctor, a male gynaecologist, who was part of an underground network,” she says. “He saved my life on another kitchen table.”
Draghici worries that the horrors of the abortion ban, when thousands of women died as a result of the kinds of procedure she underwent, are fading. “There is no national memory. It’s not something that’s taught in schools,” she says. “The memory is just here, in my head.”
Today, Mateescu is determined to push back against the changing tide. She launched a website that offers information written by doctors about abortion and contraception. “We want to give access to fact-based information,” she says.
She also trains healthcare professionals. “We work with their emotions and values and we say ‘OK, this should not interfere with your work’,” she says. “We want to empower them to advocate for women, not judge them. My aim is to see this training implemented at national level.”
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° This article was supported by www.dela0.ro