Erica van der Sijpt
Project title: Reproduction reconsidered. Historical transformations in reproductive politics, perceptions, and practices in Romania.
Since 2012, I have been conducting a post-doctoral study in a small town I call Zirna, somewhere in the Carpathian mountains in Central Romania. In the years prior to the research, I had already visited the country extensively, had become fluent in the Romanian language, and had become acquainted with the extremely painful reproductive history. Under Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, the communist regime subjected the Romanian population to extremely harsh pro-natalist interventions, of which the abortion ban (Decree 770/1966) had the most dramatic consequences for women’s health. Illegal pregnancy interruptions resulted in an enormous increase in maternal mortality and morbidity between 1966 and 1989. After the revolution, when abortion was legalized, Romania's abortion rates remained exceptionally high, however. The idea that there would be a persistent ‘abortion culture’ among Romanian women was still quite present in the Romanian public discourse when I visited the country more than two decades after the revolution. A lot of what was happening then was still interpreted in relation to the past.
I wondered whether reproductive intentions and behaviour would really be so tenacious in this rapidly changing post-communist context. Over more than 25 years of post-communism, Romanians have been witnessing many societal transformations, among which political and economic reorganizations, changing health care practices and technologies, religious revivalism, and public interpretations of motherhood and reproductive disruptions in the face of national fertility decline. Since little was known about the effect of these structural changes on people’s current perceptions and practices regarding their fertility, I decided to settle in Zirna for 15 months and unravel these interconnections.
I examined various reproductive events in women’s lives: pregnancies, deliveries, abortions, pregnancy loss, child death, and infertility. I also explicitly sought to talk to women of different generations, who have experienced these events in completely different contexts. During my fieldwork, I undertook various daily-life activities with all these women; attended baptisms, weddings, and other religious events; hung around at the gynecological, neonatal, and pediatric wards of Zirna’s hospital; and partook in antenatal classes in bigger cities. To be able to understand the dynamics around reproductive loss and infertility – topics that many people seemed initially unwilling to talk about – I became involved in the only two NGOs addressing these issues in the country. Especially the volunteers working on issues around pregnancy loss and child death embraced my presence and involved me in their support groups as well as in the yearly events they organized – in which they raised balloons and lit candles – to commemorate the lost little ones.
Overall, what became evident in all these interactions is that individual reproductive vulnerabilities are very much shaped by the uncertainties and stratifications of the current post-communist era - much more than by the happenings from before 1989, even if stories, fears, and memories still circulate. From the moment they (try to) get pregnant until well after they give birth or lose their babies, women are faced with multiple challenges generated by post-communist changes in the political, medical, religious, and social domains. My articles (in Medical Anthropology and Ethos) and a book chapter (published by Beghahn) therefore highlight how the personal predicaments around reproductive mishaps are tightly connected to various broader structural shortcomings in the country. In their stories about loss, my informants complained, for instance, about the fact that their reproductive experiences are often met with indifference in Romanian hospitals, which have become characterized by shortages, brain drain, and corruption in the post-communist era; that the increasingly powerful Orthodox Church does not properly bury or commemorate their unbaptized babies; and that there is hardly any social space to talk about their losses in a context where speech about reproduction has historically been suppressed. Despite women's political critiques, however, I found their coping strategies to be highly intimate and non-political. My informants focused on creating a spiritual bond between themselves and their lost babies – one that transcended all hardships of post-communist life and made them proud to be the mothers of little 'angels'.
Another article on the political nature of birth choices in the country, as well as a book chapter on abortion, are in the pipeline. Meanwhile, I am also working on a documentary that should powerfully vizualize some of the emotional aspects of Romanian reproduction that are difficult to describe in words. See one of our trailers here: https://vimeo.com/265036242.
IN THE MEDIA
'Learning the Romanian language at ICR', Radio France International
Radio interview (in Romanian) on the importance of the language courses I took at the Institutul Cultural Român in preparation of my research project in Romania. In 'Zebra', March 21, 2016.
'Research on reproduction in Romania', Radio France International
Radio interview (in Romanian) on the most important findings from my research project in Romania. In 'Zebra', June 16, 2015.