Baby boom and epidemics: polio and pro-natalism in Hungary

Image from Féner, Tamás. Kor-Kép 1948-1955. Budapest: Magyar Távirati Iroda, 2007. p.269.

Image from Féner, Tamás. Kor-Kép 1948-1955. Budapest: Magyar Távirati Iroda, 2007. p.269.

This is one of my favorite images from  1950s Hungary. The national bus-manufacturing company Ikarus started producing strollers in 1954 to meet the demand of the rising number of infants. This was the Ratkó-era, the baby boom of the years when abortion was banned. In an era of post-war recuperation, at a time when competing ideologies claimed to have the exclusive answer to a bright future, the fledglings of a new generation received heightened attention. Seen as key subjects of national security and economy, children of the 1950s were considered to be particularly precious to states on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Between the years 1949 and 1960, 24.9 percent to 25.4 percent of Hungary’s population was under fifteen years old. This means that in the 1950s, the most endangered age group that polio threatened constituted a quarter of the country’s inhabitants. Polio’s most widely known attribute was that it was most prevalent among children, causing disability and, in the most severe cases, death.  Following the demographic shock of World War II, the specter of such destruction elevated the significance of the disease and placed it front and center in the state’s attention as polio epidemics became more frequent and more powerful throughout the decade.

As in many post-war societies, population politics became increasingly important in the wake of long years of devastating and bloody battles, deportations, genocide and starvation. In the course of the war, Hungary lost forty percent of its national wealth and over ten percent of its population, about one million people.[1] A severely damaged infrastructure and housing shortage posed challenges for the post-war governments, and demographic problems were further exacerbated by the reorganization of industry and labor in the early years of the Communist takeover.

While the number of live births increased in the years following the war and between 1947 and 1950, the population increase stabilized at a rate higher than preceding the war (2.1 percent),[2] a more significant growth in the future labor force was needed to make up for the lack of resources and to fulfill the industrial goals of the new communist state. To further boost population increase, in 1952 the Hungarian government enforced a strict pro-natalist policy. The Hungarian state was not alone in introducing the policy, other Eastern European peoples’ democracies also decided to ban the termination of pregnancies at this time.[3] While Hungary’s method was nowhere near as extreme as the infamous abortion ban of Ceaucescu’s Romania that was instituted over a decade later, the general idea and goal undergirding such pro-natalist policies was a shared attribute in the Eastern Bloc.

The Decree on the Further Development of Mother and Child Protection was a short-lived regulation, with significant effects; in the years between 1953 and 1955, the population increase more than doubled, to 5.1 percent.[4] This jump was achieved by limiting access to contraceptive methods, by financial incentives and propaganda. Women were severely punished for undergoing abortions as were doctors who performed them. Public show trials of abortionist doctors and midwives began in the autumn of 1952 and concluded with exceptionally severe sentences.[5] All pregnant women were required to register at state offices and the state imposed a special tax on childless citizens over twenty years of age. Propaganda efforts went as far as to urge childbearing for both among married couples and those out of wedlock, emphasized by the slogan of the movement: “To give birth is a duty for wives, and glory for maidens.”[6]

The pro-natalist policy was connected to the name of Anna Ratkó, Hungary’s welfare minister and later health minister, and the only female member of government in her time. The population policies of the early fifties were soon labelled Ratkó-era policies and the members of the baby boomer generation, born between 1952 and 1956 are until today called the Ratkó children.

From the beginning, he harsh anti-abortion decree met significant resistance from the citizens as well as from the state administration itself. Historian Andrea Pető has shown that those who did not want to have children found a way to have abortions independent of regulations.[7] The decree was enacted on February 8, 1953, and less than a month later, Joseph Stalin died on March 5. The new Imre Nagy government was not keen on enforcing the criminalization aspect of the decree, and certain parts of the regulation began to be revoked in the fall of the same year. From January 1, 1954, the government permitted abortions due to social considerations. The decree was finally fully revoked in 1956 to Soviet pressure.[8]

The brief period of increase in live births was soon followed by a sharp decline, after abortions became available and the childless tax was withdrawn. Statistics show that families simply rescheduled having children. There was no major increase in the number of children per families. Instead parents had the same number of children they would have had anyway, crammed into the few years while the decree was in effect.[9] All this did lead to more children in the 1950s. By the second half of the decade, there was a particularly large number of young citizens in the country. This coincided with the time when polio epidemics began claiming more lives and affected the physical health of more and more infants and children.

[1] Ignác Romsics, Magyarország Története a Xx. Században (Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 2001).

[2] Kéri, “Gyermekképünk Az Ötvenes Évek Első Felében “.

[3] Andrea Pető, “Women’s Rights in Stalinist Hungary: The Abortion Trials of 1952-1953,” Hungarian Studies Review XXIX, no. 1-2 (2002).

[4] Kéri, “Gyermekképünk Az Ötvenes Évek Első Felében “.

[5] Pető, “Women’s Rights in Stalinist Hungary: The Abortion Trials of 1952-1953.”p.53.

[6] Piroska Kocsis, “A Szövőszéktől a Miniszteri Bársonyszékig,” Archívnet 6, no. 4 (2006).

[7] Pető, “Women’s Rights in Stalinist Hungary: The Abortion Trials of 1952-1953.”p.52.

[8] Kocsis, “A Szövőszéktől a Miniszteri Bársonyszékig.”

[9] Klinger, “Magyarország Népesedése Az Elmúlt Negyven Évben.”p.47.


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