“This harmful intervention”: discourses about abortion in state-socialist Poland

By Agata Ignaciuk

 

Today, access to abortion in Poland is regulated by an act commonly referred to as the Anti-Abortion Law. Introduced in 1993, this sets forth a narrow range of circumstances in which a pregnancy can legally be terminated. These include endangerment of the woman’s life or physical health, severe foetal malformations and pregnancies resulting from a criminal act, such as rape or incest. This legislation, providing Poland with some of the most restrictive abortion policies in Europe, was drafted and introduced during the early days of the Polish democratic transition. It successfully drove abortions – legal during state socialism – underground.

The Anti-Abortion Law has continually been presented as a “compromise”: a middle point between the liberal abortion regulation of the state socialist period, and the total prohibition put forward by the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church, who played a crucial political role during the democratic transition. While possible revisions of the law – both to further liberalization and to increase restrictions – were debated throughout the 1990s and 2000s, all attempts to change the law have ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Agnieszka Graff, who discussed some of these debates in one of the classic texts of Polish feminism, The world without women [Świat bez kobiet] (2001), argued that Polish pro-choicers “lost the war on language”[1] during the public debates on abortion. According to Graff these were confined to terms proposed by the Polish Catholic Church, with foetuses defined as unborn children and pregnant woman as “mothers”. Thus, little space was left to develop a language of “rights” in relation to abortion, contraception and sex education.

bulski poradnik okladki

The fact the “war on language” was so easily lost was not only due to the limited impact of the Polish feminist movement on state policies during the 1990s. I believe the fact that abortion was not conceptualized as a “reproductive right”, even when it was legal and common during the state socialist period, was also highly significant.

Legalized for women in “difficult life circumstances” in 1956 and available practically on demand since 1959, abortion had become an important birth control resource in Poland throughout the state-socialist period, with an estimate of between 300.000 and 500.000 abortions performed annually in public hospitals and private gynaecological surgeries. As historian Małgorzata Fidelis (2010) has pointed out, the “language of reproduction rights entered neither legal documents nor social commentary” surrounding the 1956 Polish abortion law[2]. Abortion was frequently used as a back-up method for cycle-observation based contraception and coitus interruptus, the contraceptive practices most favoured by Polish women throughout the state socialist period.

During the 1960s and 1970s, abortion legislation was being revised and liberalized in many Western countries, with feminist movements successfully re-conceptualising access to abortion as a woman’s right. At the same time, to interrupt an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy was a relatively normalized experience for many Polish women.

However, more than a “right”, abortion was commonly represented by medical professionals as a “necessary evil”: a potentially dangerous medical intervention that should be avoided at all cost. Such a depiction of abortion was circulated in publications about contraception and family planning aimed at the general public, edited under the auspices of the Polish Society for Conscious Motherhood, an organization established in 1957 to provide contraceptive advice and methods. Between 1957 and 1971, the Society printed more than 9 million books and booklets on birth control, over half of which were distributed free of charge. Male and female doctors –reputable figures within Polish gynaecology–, who acted as experts for these publications, warned women against using abortion as a birth control method. Gynaecologist Jadwiga Beaupre, one of the Society’s most prolific authors during the late 1950s, wrote in the second edition to a booklet How to prevent pregnancy [Jak zapobiegać ciąży] (1959):

“It must be remembered once and for all, that terminating pregnancy is evil. And terminating the first pregnancy is very reckless on the woman’s side, and a crime on the doctor’s side, as he should have advised her against it” (p. 26)

Jan Lesiński, director of the Clinic of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Mother and Child Institute in Warsaw, used a similar argument in a contemporary  book, We are about to get married [Przed nami małżeństwo] (1959):

“Abortion is harmful and potentially dangerous; even it is performed by a doctor. Thus, every abortion is evil, even if sometimes it is a necessary evil” (p. 7).

Other gynaecologists, like Tadeusz Bulski and Michalina Wisłocka, used similar lines of reasoning in family planning guidebooks published in the 1960s. All these authors agreed that while abortion in general was to be regarded as a “necessary evil”, abortion of the first pregnancy or repeated abortions were even more dreadful, as these were considered to easily cause sterility.

Medical arguments positioning abortion as dangerous were also used in The Catholic and family planning [Katolik a planowanie rodziny], a book aimed at priests and couples for use during Catholic marriage preparation courses. In the chapter on “conscious motherhood” in the first edition of the book from 1964, abortion was represented as both an ethical and a medical problem:

“The Church, as we know, is opposed to interrupting a pregnancy as a birth control method. However, neither medicine nor lay ethics approve of abortion, considering it brutal and harmful for a woman’s health and psyche. Medicine and ethics consider abortion a necessary evil. The Church considers it an inacceptable evil” (p. 14)

During the 1970s, while abortion continued to be represented as a potential health risk, new kinds of arguments entered the discourse. Editions of The Catholic and family planning in this decade added an increasingly complex and elaborate conceptualization of foetal personhood, framing abortion as “murder” and setting the stage for the restriction of debate to anti-choice terms in the 1990s:

“The first day after the ovum is joined with the spermatozoid, the human body as tiny as a head of a pin has a determined sex, eye, skin and hair colour, as well as some features of character… (…) During the 4th month [of pregnancy] the baby weighs half of what it will weigh at birth” (p. 32),

This can be read in the chapter on “conscious motherhood” in the 1974 edition.

While during the 1970s this and other books on family planning published in Poland for a Catholic public continued to condemn abortion through the rhetoric of medical complications and personification of the foetus, general books on contraception written by doctors continued to focus on the health risks of abortions, and emphasize the availability of new contraceptive methods, namely IUDs and the pill, that became more available in Poland between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Gynaecologist, Barbara Trębicka-Kwiatkowska, wrote in the introduction to a guidebook entitled To prevent or to interrupt pregnancy [Zapobieganie czy przerywanie ciąży] (1971):

“I don’t want to scare or forbid. I want to convince [women] that these interventions should be avoided, for the sake of one’s health and reproductive capacity. Artificial interruption of pregnancy should be a last resource, never a contraceptive method. Thanks to the modern medicine there are more contraceptive options so that every women, obviously advised by her doctor, can use a convenient method that will keep her healthy, give her peace regarding the sexual relations and enable her to plan her family” (p. 3).

Some women gynaecologist during this decade did defend abortion as a woman’s decision, but it was still not conceptualized as a “right”. Krystyna Jordan, in her book Contemporary contraception [Antykoncepcja współczesna] first published in 1973, was “surprised” that women continued to use abortions despite the new contraceptive methods, but supported the fact that abortion was legal:

“It’s incomprehensible that despite many years of contraceptive propaganda (…) and the introduction of better methods (…) contraception is not becoming more popular. Many people in Poland think that limiting births through abortion is primitive and dangerous. But it is the right thing that the women can decide about having –or not, the child” (p. 10).

Another gynaecologist, Michalina Wisłocka, in a best-selling manual of sexuality The art of love [Sztuka kochania], first published in 1978, also declared the woman herself to be the only person entitled to decide, regardless of any pressure she might receive from her partner.

To conclude, even during most of the state-socialist period when abortion was legal, it was never situated within the “reproductive rights” framework proposed by Western feminism. In state-socialist Poland abortion was condemned as an intervention which posed a serious threat to a woman’s health, and by the 1970s, Catholic birth control manuals were presenting abortion as a “crime” against the foetus: a foetus which had started to become a “child”.

With this brief sketch of the ways abortion was represented in Polish family planning manuals during the 1960s and 1970s, I hope to have illuminated the historical roots of the current abortion debates in Poland, and the difficulties contemporary Polish feminists encounter when promoting the idea of “a right to abortion”.

 

This post is based on my recently published article in Polish: “Ten szkodliwy zabieg”. Dyskursy na temat aborcji w publikacjach Towarzystwa Świadomego Macierzyństwa/Towarzystwa Planowania Rodziny (1956-1980). Zeszyty Etnologii Wrocławskiej 1(20) (2014): 75-97.

[1] Agnieszka Graff, Świat bez kobiet (Warszawa: W. A. B., 2001)

[2] Małgorzata Fidelis, Fidelis, “Women Astray. Debating Sexuality and Reproduction during the Thaw,” in Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 170-202 (190).

New publication on public hygiene in Eastern Europe

We are happy to announce the publication of a special issue about Public Hygiene in Eastern Europe with Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, edited by Andreas Renner and Katharina Kreuder-Sonnen.

The articles, published in English and German language, deal with the history of epidemics, public health policies and institutions, the  popularisation of hygiene, and eugenics in the 19th and 20th century. The regional focus is on Poland, Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. The issue covers a wide range of topics, from anti-cholera campaigns in the Kazakh steppe in the 19th century by Anna Afanasyeva, through the relationship of science and policy in an effort against malaria in Soviet Azerbaijan by Matthias Braun, to German hygienic institutions and colonial agenda in the turn of the 20th century by Justyna A. Turkowska. Katrin Steffen explores  the role of experts in developing public health in Poland, Angelika Strobel analyses hygiene propaganda efforts and the evaluation of their effectiveness in Russian provinces, while Birte Kohtz focuses on eugenics in the Soviet Union. 

For a complete table of contents and abstracts see  http://www.steiner-verlag.de/programm/zeitschriften/jahrbuecher-fuer-geschichte-osteuropas/jgo-6120134.html

To Hungary with Love

By David Bryan, reposted from The Reluctant Internationalists Blog 

Dora Vargha’s blog post on November 25th discussed the current financial difficulties faced by the Peto Institute in Budapest in the context of historical approaches to disability in Hungary. The Institute may be familiar to British readers who remember its rise to prominence in the late 1980s and its role in the debate around conductive education in the treatment of children with neurological disorders. The links between the UK and the Peto Institute provide a fascinating example of patient-led transnational history in Cold War Europe.

Princess Diana at the Peto Institute (1990)

The Institute first came to public attention following the broadcast of the BBC documentary Standing up for Joe in April 1986. The documentary followed the story of the Hadley family who had taken their severely disabled son to Budapest for treatment. The Institute pioneered the system of conductive education developed by its founder, Andras Peto, in the aftermath of the Second World War, which involved an intensive programme of physical and speech therapy under the supervision of “conductors” combined with very high expectations of the progress children could achieve.

The documentary, broadcast at prime time on BBC1 and watched by over five million people, caused a national stir. The BBC received 11,000 letters of enquiry, questions were asked in parliament, and a lobby group, the Foundation for Conductive Education, was set up to promote its use in the UK. The system was presented in the media as more holistic than the medicalised approach to treatment in the UK, and many parents were attracted by the positive expectations it had of potential progress against a perceived negativity and conservatism amongst UK medical staff. Over the following years UK families flocked to Budapest, often supported by national and local campaigns to raise funds for treatment. The Times estimated that over 600 UK children had visited the centre by 1990.

However, the treatment was not without controversy. Many within the British medical establishment felt that the claims for its success were overblown, and that the appearance of progress owed much to the fact that the Institute was selective in the cases it accepted. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy published a report in 1988 questioning many of the Institute’s claims, whilst the Spastics Society, initially wary of the programme, was picketed by the Foundation for Conductive Education over claims that its own conductive education schemes weren’t the real thing.

One of the most interesting features of the coverage of the Institute is its presentation in the context of the Cold War. Andrew Sutton, the Director for the Foundation for Conductive Education, described it as a ‘Len Deighton Cold War story, coming from a street near you’, with the media frequently describing families moving “beyond the iron curtain”. It certainly represents one of the most widespread and high profile instances of UK residents experiencing life in the Eastern Bloc prior to the end of communism. The BBC’s follow-up documentary to Standing up for Joe broadcast in 1987, which tracked the story of the British families who had followed in the Hadley’s footsteps, was entitled To Hungary with Love.

The Peto Institute also played a role in Anglo-Hungarian relations during the transition to democracy. In December 1989 the UK government announced £5 million of funding for the Institute’s new international centre to guarantee places for British children and pay for training of a group of British conductors. This funding was discussed as part of a wider package of support when Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth visited Margaret Thatcher on December 14th. In an article on the 6th January, The Times presented the funding as part of a range of government measures to form closer medical and scientific links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Following the first free elections in March 1990, Princess Diana made a high profile visit to the Institute as part of a four-day tour of Hungary where she presented an honorary OBE to its director, Dr Maria Hari.

The controversy around conductive education has never entirely gone away. In 1993 the government-commissioned Birmingham Project indicated that it was no more effective than comparable UK treatments, a claim that continues to be challenged by its adherents, whilst in 2003 Peter Randall from Kent attempted to sell his kidney on ebay to fund conductive education for his daughter. Although conductive education is now more widely available in the UK, British children continue to visit to Peto Institute for treatment.

Disability fears and fears of the disabled in Hungary

Recently the Hungarian government declined to grant a 500 million forint (approx. 2.25 million USD) emergency aid for the Pető Institute, an internationally renowned institution for training and providing conductive education in early development, primarily for children whose central nervous system has suffered damage. While the Institute denies claims to its dire financial situation and maintains that its relationship with the government is sound, journalists and opposition politicians call attention to the unclear legal situation of the Institute’s valuable real estate assets and opposition members speculate that the background of the denial of funds is the government’s desire to put their hands on the building sites and villas situated in the elegant Buda district.

The situation is as murky as can be, numbers are hard to come by to support or disprove any of the above claims. Most recently the online news portal HVG Online attempted to track down evidence to make sense of the Pető Institute story – without much success. My aim here is not to establish the “truth”, nor to unravel political agendas that may or may not influence decisions, publicity and processes in the Institute’s current condition. I am more interested in where (valid or perceived) threats to disability institutions’ real estate might come from and to place current disability politics in Hungary into a historical context. I firmly believe that a historical outlook on the long-term trajectories of past events can further our understanding of such controversies, and, therefore, may help in finding solutions.

Very much real threats of government officials trying to lay a claim to valuable real estate in the hands of institutions caring for disabled children are not without precedent. Over half a century ago, the rival of András Pető in physical disability care, László Lukács fought – and won – a battle against the communist government for the Heine-Medin Post-Treatment Hospital’s buildings. This hospital was established in a process covering months before, during and after the 1956 revolution, therefore its political legitimacy was more than problematic. A brief manuscript gives insight into the political maneuvering of its director, László Lukács, as he stated:

“The Health Minister proposed that the institution belong directly to the Ministry, but I could also choose to put it under the authority of the City of Budapest instead. I chose the latter. […] The chief doctor of the city was Dr. János Vikol, who had […] firmly supported the cause of the disabled. The other reason was that I didn’t trust the leaders of the Health Ministry, I feared [undoing], a hope of the 200 leading party members with the intention of getting back the distinguished treatment of their children.”

Although maintaining the new institution and its buildings after the revolution clearly required political skills, the fact that the doctor-director could choose which authority the institution should belong to, implies the great importance assigned to the cause, leaving Lukács with a certain political independence. Meanwhile, he also had to deal with the hostility of the political elite, who felt that the establishment of the hospital would curb their privileges in childcare.

The reason for this was that the Heine-Medin Hospital opened in five buildings that previously belonged to the Rákosi Mátyás kindergarten, a childcare home for privileged party officials in the prestigious district of the Rózsadomb in the Buda hills. The houses were for the most part nationalized residences of the economic and political elite of another era. The villas were scattered in the most sought-after part of the city, among green lawns with small patches of woods and swimming pools around them. It is no coincidence that an institution founded during the 1956 revolution was established in buildings with such history: this was a small, but obvious attack against the hated political elite.

Lukács’s cause was “helped” by the fact that severe polio epidemics were sweeping through the country year by year, causing fear in parents from the members of the Ministry Council to iron workers and leaving children paralyzed by the thousands. However, as soon as polio vaccination succeeded in putting a stop to epidemics in Hungary, Lukács soon lost the overall war for his institution and after merely six years of opening its doors to exclusive disability care, the hospital had to let go of its patients and its profile in specialized care.

Since then, disability had never been visible much in Hungary, nor have issues and rights of disability made it into mainstream public discourse. In the twentieth century, no glorious war with respected war veterans ignited social and political involvement in disability care, while in the last half-century, the physically and mentally disabled were removed from sight and society in the seclusion of often remote institutions or their homes. They were not compatible with communist ideals of physical strength, production and the triumph of the socialist man over the decadence of the West. While there has been significant change for the better since 1989, people with disability have generally continued their relative invisibility and disability issues have continued to occupy a very low status on the national agenda.

There is no emergency situation similar to polio epidemics in Hungary today to ensure the heightened attention to issues of disability. On the contrary, disability care and rights found themselves among the first targets of budget cuts in a society that is becoming less and less tolerant and more and more hostile towards disabled people. Recently, a whole village, with the leadership of its MP of the governing party raised national outcry against the plan of several mentally disabled people moving to their community in a program of de-institutionalization and independent living (the MP later officially retracted his point of view). It seems that today whole communities feel comfortable in voicing their concerns over “unsightly” people and arguing that it would be inappropriate to bring disabled into a community that is hostile towards the “crazies”. The seemingly haphazard reorganization of the educational system has been making integrated education challenging for pedagogues and parents alike.

It is into this historical heritage and current context that the controversial issue of the Pető Institute enters. Fears of bankruptcy, of real estate speculations and further budget cuts to disability support and care are not only the results of current government policies and of surfacing political agendas, nor are fears of and hostility towards the disabled in Hungary. Certain events and processes in the communist era of Hungary have very long and stubbornly lasting effects (like polio epidemics on disability issues) – and not only in ways that the governing party, Fidesz, who has posited its politics and profile against that era and its governments is aware of. Any solution to the controversy surrounding the Pető Institute and more broadly speaking, disability issues in Hungary would need to include thinking and acting with long-term historical  – and future – trajectories in mind.

Advertising in Central and East European Medical Journals

The following advertisements are taken from  the journals Psychiatrie, Neurologie und medizinische PsychologieCasopis Lekaru Ceskych, and Neuropsihijatrija during the 1960s and 1970s.  Meant exclusively for physician audiences, they cover products ranging from medical instruments and sleeping pills to anticonvulsants and beauty creams.  They demonstrate the international nature of these markets, with both West and East European producers seeking to expand their consumer base.

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‘Experimental Psychosis’ and LSD Research in Communist Czechoslovakia

Image

These images were produced by experimental subjects taking part in the ‘Experimental Psychosis’ project at the Prague Psychiatric Research Institute in the late 1950s and 1960s. The research programme, headed by psychiatrist Miloš Vojtěchovský, involved EEG monitoring and the analysis of creative graphic output (paintings, charcoal and ink drawings, among others) of healthy individuals under the influence of a variety of psychotropic drugs (including psilocybin, mescaline, adrenaline derivatives, dimethyl- and diethyltryptamine, and perhaps most significantly, LSD). These were then compared to the results of the same tests for experimental subjects with a diagnosis of schizophrenia during psychotic episodes, as a means to examine whether hallucinogens induced a form of ‘model psychosis’.

The subject who painted the faces above reported being unable to record the constantly changing colours quickly enough as the hallucination was happening, and so the resulting black and red images do not capture the full range detail of the images experienced.[i] The gradual distortion of the facial features is reminiscent of the progressive deterioration of Louis Wain’s ‘Kaleidescope Cats’, thought to be a result of his worsening mental illness.

Whilst ultimately the experimenters were doubtful as to whether the parallels between psychosis and drug-induced hallucinations went beyond mere analogy, they argued that inducing ‘model psychosis’ had a very important didactic function for mental health professionals, as it provided a new way for staff to directly experience symptoms of mental illness that they had hitherto only been able to observe in their patients. They hoped that such phenomenological experiences could be integrated into the training of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, to enable a more humane therapeutic relationship.[ii]

Image

This illustration is accompanied by an explanatory note exploring the word-game that the experimental subject was engaging in during their LSD-induced experience. The comical canine cariacature with its exaggerated genitals is ‘Psychosexopes’, which can be roughly translated into English as ‘Psychosexdog’ It is a visual representation of the experimental subject’s chain of thoughts, which pun on the fact that the plural of the Czech word for pes, meaning dog, is psy. An annotation beneath the image reads,  ‘psyche – higher nervous activity – experiments with dogs, sexuality – psychoanalysis’.[iii]

According to officially endorsed ideology under Communism, psychic phenomena were reducible to the products of ‘higher nervous activity’ in the Pavlovian sense. Experimental work in the Pavlovian tradition often made use of experiments with dogs (psy). The term ‘psy, in tandem with this particular dog’s obvious sexuality, in turn brings the subject’s thoughts back to psychoanalysis. Given that psychoanalysis was technically regarded as a pseudoscience by the regime – with scientists having to have special permission to access the works of Freud which were kept in separate rooms in state libraries – the amalgamation of Pavlov with Freud in this wordplay signifies the bringing together of two ideological opposites, and has a subversive element.

Although the identity of the experimental subject remains undisclosed by the authors of the book, it is perhaps worth noting that at least one of the project’s collaborators, Stanislav Grof, was a trained psychoanalyst, and went on to use LSD to support therapeutic sessions which did draw explicitly from psychoanalytic models. The fact that such work was being carried out during the 1960s in Czechoslovakia is testament to the possibilities for theoretical autonomy in medical research at the time. In spite of the Party’s disapproval of psychoanalysis, the experimental psychosis researchers were, in practice, able to continue to pursue their own interpretations within experimental contexts without much direct state regulation, even before the Prague Spring Reforms of 1968.


[i] See Jiří Roubíček Experimentální psychosy (Prague: Státní zdravotnické nakladatelství, 1961) pp. 216-219

[ii] Ibid., p. 260

[iii] Ibid., p. 194

Further Reading:

Stanislav Grof Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (New York: Viking Press, 1975)

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.