A Romanian triumph at the Cannes film festival this year has revived painful memories for thousands of women.
The film '4 months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days' presents the picture of illegal abortions during the communist days in Romania. Scriptwriter and director Cristian Mungiu tells the story of a university student trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy with the help of her roommate.
The two young women are forced seek the help of "Mr. Bebe", a fixer who takes advantage of them. The story is set in the late 1980s during the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, when abortions were illegal.
Mungiu said the experience of someone he knows inspired him to write the script for this film. Most Romanians have a relative or a friend who terminated a pregnancy in illegal and dangerous circumstances.
Mungiu's film has not yet been distributed in Romania. Still, people talk about it as if they have seen it already.
"This film came to me in a period when I am looking back at my life," said Crenguta, 55, an accountant from Brasov. "My two children have grown up. They are the same age I was when I was making the abortions. Looking at them, I wonder how I survived all those attempts. My body was very strong. And I ignored most of the dangers I was putting myself through."
Abortions were allowed in Romania until 1966, when the Communist government passed a decree making them illegal. Women who violated the law could get between six months and two years in prison. Doctors who carried out abortions without permission could get between one and three years imprisonment.
Pregnancy-related medical procedures undertaken in hospitals were supervised by special commissions made up of prosecutors, members of the secret police, of the Communist Party and sanitary inspectors.
Given the high risks, women would rarely find a doctor who would carry out an abortion. Many tried to terminate the pregnancies themselves or looked for midwifes who claimed experience in childbirth and abortions.
"Out of desperation, women would resort to insane methods," medical generalist Elena Borza explained. "They would use salt, detergent, or any other substance which they thought could help them get rid of the baby." Women would inject such substances into the uterus, hoping this would eliminate the foetus.
Other methods involved drinking large quantities of red boiled wine, injecting hormone-based substances in their veins, and hitting themselves in the belly.
Women were often unaware of the serious threats posed by these procedures. According to data provided by the National Centre for Statistics and Legal Medicine, between 1966 and 1989, more than 9,000 women died because of such clandestine abortions.
"These techniques would cause inflammation of the uterus. Many women would become infertile after that," gynaecologist Anca Galitianu told IPS. "Sometimes, the infections were so severe that the women died."
Maria, 50, a kindergarten teacher from Brasov, thinks that the tumor in her uterus could have been caused by abortions done through inappropriate methods. "Nobody told me that, but I know what I have done to my body. I must have injected alcohol or etilic acid in my uterus on at least five occasions. I didn't know what I was doing then, but I am feeling the consequences today."
After the first birth, Maria's husband did not want any more children. "Sometimes, if he got mad at me, he would even threaten to tell the police I made the abortions," she said.
The brutality of the abortion methods and the constant state of fear imposed by the regime would often place a heavy burden on the couple.
"I will never forgive my husband for not helping me when I almost bled to death during an abortion," says Valentina, 54, a physical education teacher. "I was just sitting over the bowl, which was filling up with blood. We were afraid to call an ambulance because they would understand what I did, and arrest me." Valentina added that, after that, she could never have sexual intercourse again.
"I remember once the pain was so much that I had to go lie down on the cool, concrete floor of the balcony to feel better. But it kept hurting. I never thought I would survive that," Maria recalls. "I did survive it," she added, "but the pain and the fear gradually weakened me. I remain a vulnerable person."
Abortions were legalised in Romania in December 1989, through the first decree passed by a revolutionary government brought to power at the end of a popular revolt against the Communist dictatorship.
Crenguta, Maria and Valentina all have adult daughters. Crenguta said the story of Mungiu's movie made her talk to her daughter about pregnancies and abortions all over again, just to make sure her daughter is never in need of advice and afraid to ask for it. (