chernobyl

Why Hundreds of Thousands of Women Ended Their Pregnancies After Chernobyl

Misinformation, "radiophobia" and fear of birth defects led to hundreds of thousands of abortions after the nuclear disaster.

by Becky Ferreira
05 June 2019, 7:45am

Image: HBO

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This post contains spoilers for HBO's 'Chernobyl.'

The new mothers gaze lovingly at their babies. Then, the camera pans to an empty crib.

Next to it, behind a curtain, a mother privately mourns. Her husband, a first responder to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, chose the name Natashenka for their baby before he died from severe radiation poisoning.

A few months later, Natashenka was born. She lived for four hours, then died from radiation-induced congenital heart disease and cirrhosis because she was exposed to her father when her mother visited him on his deathbed.

The scene is based on the true story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, who lost her husband and newborn daughter to the Chernobyl disaster within the span of a few months. It is one of many narrative threads woven into the HBO miniseries Chernobyl that chronicle personal tragedies in the wake of the catastrophic reactor explosion on April 26, 1986.

“They said the radiation would have killed the mother but the baby absorbed it instead,” says Ulana Khomyuk, a character invented for the show, in a recent episode. “We live in a country where children have to die to save their mothers.”

Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s experience remains a harrowing example of the immense sacrifices forced upon Chernobyl’s victims. But fortunately, most pregnant women—even those who lived near the explosion—were exposed to a tiny fraction of the radiation dose Ignatenko absorbed from her husband, Vasily, who was at the reactor shortly after it exploded.

While long-term studies suggest that babies exposed to Chernobyl in the womb show increased odds of developing thyroid cancer as adults, there is no substantive evidence that birth defects were appreciably more common in babies delivered by women who were near the disaster compared to those who were not exposed, according to the World Health Organization.

''We've now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,'' Robert Gale, a UCLA physician who coordinated rescue and medical responses to the disaster, told the New York Times in February 1987. ''Not surprisingly, none of them, at birth at least, has any detectable abnormalities. We weren't expecting any. That's an example that no news is good news.''

Still, as depicted in the miniseries, misinformation and “radiophobia” spread quickly in the weeks and months following the disaster. Many people, including doctors, felt they could not trust authorities to give them the truth about the extent of the contamination.

As a result, tens of thousands of women chose to end their pregnancies with abortions—some on the advice of their doctors and some in spite of it.

“According to the [International Atomic Energy Agency], an estimated 100,000-200,000 wanted pregnancies were aborted in Western Europe because physicians mistakenly advised patients that the radiation from Chernobyl posed a significant health risk to unborn children,” a June 1987 piece published in The Journal of Nuclear Medicine reads.

These choices are ultimately reflected in the birth rate data from 1986 and 1987. Within Soviet Ukraine, thousands more women requested abortions in the month after the disaster alone, compared to the baseline rate. Even in more distant nations, such as Hungary, Greece, Denmark, and Italy, there was a major uptick in abortions linked to the disaster, causing a depressed birth rate over the subsequent year. It’s worth noting that there was no uptick in spontaneous or induced abortions after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

"What frightens me is that pregnant women rushing to us in desperation want to have their pregnancies terminated," said Hungarian geneticist Imre Feiffer in June 1986, according to the LA Times.

Of course, some women may have opted to end pregnancies for reasons other than radiophobia and anxieties about prenatal abnormalities.

The mental health toll of the Chernobyl disaster is considered by one 2007 study to be “the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date.” That study found that Chernobyl-exposed populations were up to four times more likely to report stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD than control groups, and that these symptoms often persisted for decades after the disaster.

HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries is infused with this profound sense of sorrow, which infiltrated people’s lives as insidiously as radioactive particles penetrated their bodies. Many families may not have been psychologically prepared to continue pregnancies, regardless of the likelihood of birth defects.

When we think of Chernobyl, we tend to picture the otherworldly meltdown itself, and the eerie abandoned landscape that surrounds the site over 30 years later.

But from the perspective of women across the Soviet Union and Europe, the disaster had an intimate dimension that played out in more banal and familiar locations—doctors’ offices, kitchen tables, and playgrounds. The sudden spike in abortions after the disaster is yet another indicator that Chernobyl exacted an unimaginable human cost that even the most dedicated retellings will never be able to capture.