Slovak women and the tightening of the ban on abortions under the regime of the wartime Slovak republic[i]
Since 2019 the Slovak parliament has discussed several proposals aiming to restrict access to abortions, or banning them completely, even though there has not been support of majority of Slovaks. After the election in February 2020, and during the outbreak of Covid-19 the goal of the new government to attack women’s rights, and thus ban or restrict any access to terminate unwished pregnancy has become clear. Partially this aim tries to polarize the Slovak society, and so cover actual essential economic problems. Nevertheless, it also comes under the cover of helping women. While in same cases it is promoted by Catholic fundamentalists, it also works for populists, and extreme-right. The currently most „successful“ proposal of a bill was with 81 out of 150 votes passed to the second reading in the Slovak parliament.
While working on the project of “Family planning” in East Central Europe (funded by Ministry of Education and Research, BMBF, FKZ 01UC1902) from the 19th century until the approval of the “pill” with a study on Czechoslovakia from 1918 until 1965, I cannot avoid the thought of the similarity and parallels of today’s proposals and the 1941 Law on Protection of Foetus. In this text I aim to discuss one of many manifestations of resistance of Slovak women on the tightening of the ban on abortions under the regime of the wartime Slovak republic (1939-1945).
The ideology of the wartime Slovak Republic was characterized by a focus on the so-called the traditional role of women in Slovak society.[ii] The ruling Hlinka Slovak People’s Party (HSPP) sought the return of women from public to private life, to the family. Slovak families and the institution of marriage were supported and the increase in the birth rate was emphasized in particular. This was also related to the ban on contraception, in addition to protection against sexually transmitted diseases, and the ban on abortion was tightened compared to the laws of the Czechoslovak Republic and penalties were increased. The moralistic arguments of the HSPP and the introduction of the new Law on Protection of Foetus in 1941 encountered several pitfalls. The so-called network so-called “angel makers” (or ‘backstreet’ abortionists; in Slovak anjeličkár, in German Engelmacher), midwives, doctors and physicians who performed abortions, existed throughout the Slovak Republic, and although their activities were endangered by law, they did not disappear. This is evidenced by numerous criminal records on the “expulsion of the foetus”, or the so-called “criminal” abortions, performed throughout the existence of the Slovak Republic. In addition to “criminal” behaviour behind the back of official politics, several people spoke out against the tightening of the law. The professional public, especially doctors, collaborated on the concepts of the law. On the other side stood ordinary women who disagreed.[iii]
“A nation lives in mothers”
From Eva Škorvánková’s study on the promotion of motherhood during the war of the Slovak Republic, we learn about the contemporary discussion about the position of women and their primary role as mothers.[iv] For instance, in May 1939 the newspaper Slovák stated “a nation lives and will live in mothers”,[v] which in practice meant that women were needed, especially, to give birth to loyal Slovaks. While the Slovaks fought on the fronts, the heroic act of the Slovak women supposed to give birth to future soldiers. The ideal of a Slovak woman was a mother with numerous children. Although there were economic benefits in the family support plan, the exact instructions on how should a woman feed an additional hungry mouth of a large family were no longer the subject of discussion. Finally, as the newspaper Slovák stated, “let’s not be afraid that they will have nothing to eat and nothing to wear, because Father Almighty will take care of them,”[vi] and so they offered mothers not very useful instructions on how to raise her children.
In addition, the Catholic magazine Nová žena did not shy away from judging women who chose to terminate their pregnancies. They were said to “no longer have the right to rejoice, for they are murderers when they forcibly extinguished the lights lit by the hand of God in their womb.”[vii] Government policy and its propaganda tools have strongly opposed abortion, almost without considering the health status of the woman, the social status of the family or the pregnant woman, or regardless of the conditions in which the pregnancy took place.
Law on Protection of Foetus
In Slovakia, abortion was prohibited under the Hungarian criminal law article of 1878, which also regulated the crimes of “murder of a new-born” and “expulsion of the foetus”. Through the Act no. 11/1918 stating that all hitherto regional and imperial laws and regulations would remain in force, this legal treatment was subsequently taken over by the first Czechoslovak republic for the territories of Slovakia and Subcarpathian Russia.[viii] Although during the existence of the Czechoslovak Republic there were efforts to partially liberalize abortions, none of the proposals was successful.[ix] However, it was possible to terminate the pregnancy if the woman’s life or health was endangered.[x] This legal regulation was changed only in the Slovak Republic, whose population policy was influenced by several factors. One was family policy in Nazi Germany, but also the teaching of the Catholic Church. An encyclical of Casti Connubia from 1930 by Pius XI. described the abortion as the intentional murder of an innocent person and at the same time rejected any indication for abortion. He also opposed contraceptives.
By the Act no. 66/1941 of Collection of Laws on Protection of Foetus approved on March 29, 1941 abortion policies was tightened.[xi] The exception was a serious threat to a woman’s life. The procedure could be performed only in institutions designated by the Ministry of the Interior after confirmation of the threat to a woman’s life by two official doctors. Previous penalties have been increased. Although in many cases the authorities promoted the new law as an act of Christian morality, the main reason for passing this law was the effort to increase the population.
The Letter of Women from Trnava[xii]
One of the critics of the newly adopted law was an anonymous letter dated May 7, 1941 addressed to the Presidency of the Slovak Parliament. The senders were Women from Trnava, who at the outset pointed out that the Slovak Parliament decided to pass a law without considering the situation of the Slovak people, and the result was that Slovaks “grumble, blaspheme God and even becomes non-Christian just because you pass the law on maternity protection.” These were in a very critical position, especially when it came to the reasons for the creation of this law: „It is easy to shout for the gentlemen in the high seats, so that poverty can be hatched, and then it could protect their backs when something goes wrong.” It was clear to these women that the republic had no Christian values in the interest of foetal protection, but sought to multiply the population for its own use and protection.
According to these women, the main reason for criticism of the Law on Protection of Foetus was the bad economic situation. They repeatedly commented on the problems associated with the raising of a large number of children in unsatisfactory social conditions. The letter is overall carried in a stylistically and grammatically high style, but the sensitivity and seriousness of the topic led the senders to a rather vulgar sharpening of their arguments emphasizing social and economic injustice: “Then it’s adequate, when it is cared for our people enough to have something to live on (…) and they, gentlemen, guzzle in their chairs, and not only that, but they also shag, keep their hookers close to them so they can be always available at their hands.“ The senders of the letter emphasized the dual morality of government circles not only in the context of material well-being, extramarital affairs, but especially in the case of abortions: “They can get help from the pregnancy, because they have colleagues and they will of course arrange it.”
As the main solution to this social problem and the complications that came when the law came into force, the authors offered a proposal: “Let the gentlemen multiply, their wives can shit children, because they have something to eat, they lead a comfortable life, they have a cook around them, a maid. But what can a woman say who works for everyday bread from morning to evening, as well as her man, and they still do not earn enough for decent clothes and food, because everything is extremely expensive.” In the letter, they emphasized that the new law is threatening the lowest classes of the society.
Although the Women from Trnava cannot be accurately identified, neither their social and economic status, nor their ideological thinking, these women appear to be fully aware of their own responsibility for family planning: “Every mother knows whether to give birth to a child even without your law. And when a husband is a womanizer, a drunkard, who does not want to give a woman a salary, so where we are in China, or where in hell, when a woman should give birth to the fruit of torment so the child will go after begging?” The authors were also fully aware of the misogyny of the newly adopted law: “The law was passed by men who want to drive mothers and women even more to despair (…) It is terror, violence, not the Christian government, but the torture of women.”
In the context of Christian moralizing and glorifying the idyllic images of Slovak women and families, some passages a refreshing view of the sexuality of ordinary Slovak women and men in the time of the Slovak Republic[xiii]: “But don’t forget, you gentlemen up there, that the poverty also wants to shag here and there like you. We also have a little life inside. How we supposed to do it???“ The letter is also an invaluable document on the position of women and their efforts to regulate birth rates in the context of their economic situation: “Please do not spread hatred against the government between us with such a thing, because only God knows what a woman must suffer. What kind of Calvary she has to go through, when she has to put up with a worthless man while trying to keep in order at least one child.” And although the propaganda of the Slovak Republic sharply opposed one-child families, in reality it was not the “spoiled ladies” who opted for one child, but families living in difficult social conditions.
The end of the letter is in a conciliatory tone, suggesting a solution: “Let children be born there where there is not so much suffering, (…) because in many families there is hunger, struggle and poverty and unemployment for adults, and then such laws are contradicting the God Himself.” In the end, the Women from Trnava called for the correction of what the “Gentlemen” had invented in the law, and they politely and politically (and legally) correctly said goodbye with the greeting „On guard!” (Na Stráž! in Slovak, the Slovak equivalent of „Heil Hitler“ or „Sieg Heil“)
Success of the anti-abortion policies?
Although the Law on Protection of Foetus remained in force until the end of the existence of the wartime Slovak Republic, it did not stop abortions. Although it is not possible to accurately state the number of abortions in the Slovak Republic from the enforcement of the law until 1945, in practice the “success” of this law did not occur. According to Michal Malatinský’s interesting estimates, in 1941 there was a reduced number of treated “criminal” abortions at the Bratislava Women’s Clinic.[xiv] This finding was to be proof of the effectiveness of the Law on Protection of Foetus. The author also pointed out the increase in the number of children born during the existence of the Slovak Republic. These figures alone would confirm the effectiveness of pro-natal policy, including anti-abortion legislation, but other aspects need to be framed in the more accurate evaluation. The increase in the number of births was mainly related to the strong generation. This generation that was numerous reached the reproductive age, and thus more people in reproductive age equals to a larger number of new-borns. In addition, a significant number of women from areas which were annexed by Hungary after the Vienna Award in 1938 were excluded from “abortion” statistics of the Bratislava Women’s Clinic.[xv]
Contemporary writings suggest the continuation of the existence of non-institutional networks of midwives, doctors and “angel makers”, which functioned as an alternative to the Law on Protection of Foetus.[xvi] In addition, not all women who underwent abortion were known. Some underwent the procedure discreetly and without complications. More complicated cases of other women could be hidden from hospitals or clinics. And last but not least, women who died of complications associated with improperly performed abortion – inflammation, while the origin of the inflammation was not further determined, were also not included in any “abortion” statistics. Thus, on the basis of several indirect statistical data with an emphasis on external factors, which can be read from contemporary documents, there is no reason to believe that pro-natal policy, and thus the tightening of the criminalization of abortion, had reduced the number of abortions.
Yet, what is possible to conclude from the analysis is a fact that in a time and space criminalizing women who opt for abortion, we can consider the conscious position against the tightening of the laws governing women’s reproductive rights as an enforcement of the right to freely decide about their own body, and thus as an act of resistance. The letter from Women from Trnava is one of many of the manifestations of opposition to the Law on Protection of Foetus introduced by the Slovak Parliament in 1941.
[i] Parts of this article were published in Slovak. See DENISA NEŠŤÁKOVÁ: „Deti robiť nie je umenie, ale starať sa o ne áno“ [“It is not an art to make babies, but to raise them“], in: History Web, 2020.
[ii] DENISA NEŠŤÁKOVÁ, EDUARD NIŽŇANSKÝ: Regulation of sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews according to the Decree 198/1941 during the Slovak republic, in: EDUARD NIŽŇANSKÝ, DENISA NEŠŤÁKOVÁ (eds.): Judaica et Holocaustica 7: Women and WWII. Bratislava
[iii] DENISA NEŠŤÁKOVÁ: Žena proti štátu. “Kriminálne” potraty v čase Slovenskej republiky 1939-1945 [Women against the State. “Criminal” abortions during the Slovak republic 1939-1945], in: JOZEF HYRJA (ed.): Tisovi poza chrbát: Príbehy odporu voči ľúdáckemu režimu. Bratislava 2020. (Forthcoming)
[iv] EVA ŠKRORVÁNKOVÁ: Propagácia materstva v období prvej Slovenskej republiky (1939 – 1945) [Promotion of Motherhood as State Policy in the 1939-1945 Slovak Republic], in: PAVOL TIŠLIAR (ed.): Populačné štúdie Slovenska 3.Bratislava 2014, pp. 31-100.
[v] According to the speech of the Minister of Education Jozef Sivák during the Mother’s day. Published in Slovák, no. 21, vol 124, p. 4 (May 31, 1939)
[vi] O. DUNAJECKÝ: Rodinná politika – najsilnejšia politik [Family politic – the strongest politics], in: Slovák (1939), no. 21, vol. 172, p. 1 (July 29, 1939).
[vii] LIBOR P. MATTOŠKA: Vianoce ženy – matky [Christmans of a woman – mother], in: Nová žena (1940), no. 3, vol. 52, p. 5. (December 22 1940).
[viii] EVA REPKOVÁ: Abort a infanticídium v novovekom uhorskom trestnom práve [Abortion and Infanticide in the Modern Hungarian Criminal Law], in: Societas et Iurisprudentia (2014) no. 2, vol. 1, pp. 147-173.
[x] ANNA FALISOVÁ: Remeslo či milosrdenstvo: Kriminálne potraty v medzivojnovom období [A Craft or a Compassion: Criminal Abortions in the interwar period], in: VALERIÁN BYSTRICKÝ, JAROSLAVA ROGUĽOVÁ (et kol): Storočie procesov. Súdy, politika a spoločnosť v moderných dejinách Slovenska, Bratislava 2013, pp. 51-65.
[xii] The letter is part of the Slovak National Archive, Fund Snem Slovenskej republiky (Parliament of the Slovak republic), Box 104, File 14/41. Some parts of the letter are extremely vulgar in its original form. I tried to keep the translation as authentic as possible, thus the profanity.
[xiii] Forore about sexuality in 20th century see DAGMAR HERZOG: Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge 2011.
[xiv] MICHAL MALATINSKÝ: Ochrana plodu a plodnosti na Slovensku (1939 – 1945) [Fetus and fertility protection in Slovakia (1939 – 1945)], in: Ochrana života XIII. Osobnosti a vývoj vedných odborov, Trnava 2012, pp. 68-77.
[xv] See also LUDWIG EJURY: Štatistika potratov na pôrodníckej a ženskej klinike v Bratislave od 14. III. 1939 do 30. VI. 1941 [Statistics of Abortions at the Women’s clinic in Bratislava from March 14, 1939 until April 30, 1941], in: Bratislavské lekárske listy (1941), p. 328.