BUCHAREST, Romania: Cristina Mihaescu remembers lying quietly in hospital in 1975, fighting not to miscarry. In the bed next to her, a young woman was dying due to complications from an illegal abortion.
A day later, the woman, a mother of two, was dead — one of many victims under Romania's communist-era laws severely restricting abortion and outlawing birth control.
"The poor woman had ruptured her uterus with knitting needles," Mihaescu said. "She had turned purple from blood poisoning and had come to the hospital too late."
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu chose the subject for his harrowing film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which on Sunday won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize — the Palme d'Or.
The low-budget, naturalistic film features a student who goes through horrors to ensure that her friend can have a secret abortion.
In 1966, just one year into his quarter-century rule, former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu began to outlaw birth control and abortion in a bid to boost declining birth rates. Doctors who carried out abortions or who did not report botched home abortions risked prison sentences of up to eight years and being banned from the profession.
"It was a criminal law," said Mihaescu, now 65. "My friends, my relatives and women I met were affected by it."
Doctors defied the law, sometimes performing surgeries and abortions in their homes or in hospitals in the dead of night, while the Communist militia prowled the hospital corridors, Mihaescu said.
"My uncle was a gynecologist and he performed abortions at home because otherwise he would have risked going to prison," said Theodor Oltean, a dentist. "The state wasn't interested in whether a woman was dying, it just wanted to lock up the doctor."
In 1987, two years before communism ended in Romania, the country had an estimated 131 abortions per 100 live births, the highest rate in Europe, according to the "Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Repoduction in Ceausescu's Romania," by Gail Kligman, who cites the Romanian Health Ministry. By comparison, Scotland had 14.1 abortions to 100 live births in 1987.
In 1989, Romania's maternal mortality rate was 1.71 per 1,000 live births, with more than 1.4 of those deaths caused by the effects of abortion, the ministry says.
After communism ended, one of the government's first acts was to legalize abortion, which then became the main method of contraception. Doctors, who could charge for abortions, even encouraged the practice. In the first year it was legal, Romania registered 600,000 abortions — or more than two per live birth.
The numbers have slowly fallen since then, with other forms of contraceptives gaining popularity. In 2005, there were just over 163,000 abortions, and last year 150,000.
"Women are now using condoms, the pill and older women the intrauterine devices," said Dr. Raluca Stefan, a gynecologist at the Polizu hospital.
The numbers of abortion-related deaths have also been declining, with 15 registered in 2005, and 12 last year in the country of 22 million, the Health Ministry said.
But memories and the trauma linger.
"My sister-in-law was pregnant with her third child and the family couldn't cope. I will never forget how she was rushed to hospital with septicemia after a home abortion. She needed a blood transfusion, and we were warming the bottles of blood and plasma in our armpits in the middle of the night," Mihaescu said.
"My husband was in the corridor plying the militia with cigarettes," and we had to say that she had bleeding from her uterus, "but the militia still came to her home and questioned her."