30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human ContactBreaking News
tags: Communism, Romania, 1990s, Pronatalism
This past christmas day was the 30th anniversary of the public execution by firing squad of Romania’s last Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who’d ruled for 24 years. In 1990, the outside world discovered his network of “child gulags,” in which an estimated 170,000 abandoned infants, children, and teens were being raised. Believing that a larger population would beef up Romania’s economy, Ceaușescu had curtailed contraception and abortion, imposed tax penalties on people who were childless, and celebrated as “heroine mothers” women who gave birth to 10 or more. Parents who couldn’t possibly handle another baby might call their new arrival “Ceauşescu’s child,” as in “Let him raise it.”
To house a generation of unwanted or unaffordable children, Ceauşescu ordered the construction or conversion of hundreds of structures around the country. Signs displayed the slogan: the state can take better care of your child than you can.
At age 3, abandoned children were sorted. Future workers would get clothes, shoes, food, and some schooling in Case de copii—“children’s homes”—while “deficient” children wouldn’t get much of anything in their Cămine Spitale. The Soviet “science of defectology” viewed disabilities in infants as intrinsic and uncurable. Even children with treatable issues—perhaps they were cross-eyed or anemic, or had a cleft lip—were classified as “unsalvageable.”
After the Romanian revolution, children in unspeakable conditions—skeletal, splashing in urine on the floor, caked with feces—were discovered and filmed by foreign news programs, including ABC’s 20/20, which broadcast “Shame of a Nation” in 1990. Like the liberators of Auschwitz 45 years before, early visitors to the institutions have been haunted all their lives by what they saw. “We flew in by helicopter over the snow to Siret, landing after midnight, subzero weather, accompanied by Romanian bodyguards carrying Uzis,” Jane Aronson tells me. A Manhattan-based pediatrician and adoption-medicine specialist, she was part of one of the first pediatric teams summoned to Romania by the new government. “We walk into a pitch-black, freezing-cold building and discover there are youngsters lurking about—they’re tiny, but older, something weird, like trolls, filthy, stinking. They’re chanting in a dronelike way, gibberish. We open a door and find a population of ‘cretins’—now it’s known as congenital iodine deficiency syndrome; untreated hypothyroidism stunts growth and brain development. I don’t know how old they were, three feet tall, could have been in their 20s. In other rooms we see teenagers the size of 6- and 7-year-olds, with no secondary sexual characteristics. There were children with underlying genetic disorders lying in cages. You start almost to disassociate.”
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