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Fallout From Chernobyl--It's Not Just Radioactive

June 15, 1986|ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — "The cloud," as East Europeans called the fallout from Chernobyl, may have dispersed around the world, but it still casts a long shadow over Eastern Europe, where radioactive contamination was heaviest outside the Soviet Union itself.

The economic, political and psychological effects of history's worst nuclear accident will remain a troubling issue to the Communist authorities in Eastern Europe for months to come, if not years.

Chernobyl has cost the region tens of millions of dollars in lost income from food exports and tourism. It has heightened popular mistrust of governments that scrupulously avoided criticizing the Soviet Union's secretive handling of the accident. And it has underscored their fundamental subservience to Moscow as few things have since the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But the highest cost of the accident, if only indirectly, may not be economic or political but human.

From Poland to Yugoslavia, many women in the early months of pregnancy have obtained abortions in recent weeks--against the advice of church and government officials--rather than face the uncertain risk of radiation-induced birth defects.

Health authorities throughout Eastern Europe have given repeated assurances that contamination never approached levels that would justify such drastic action, but this has not deterred many women.

Doctors and other unofficial sources in Poland, the East Bloc nation closest to the stricken nuclear power plant in the Soviet Ukraine, estimate the number of women seeking radiation-related abortions since early May at several thousand. No official figures are available, in part because medical records do not always reflect the real motivation for obtaining abortions, which are available on demand in most of Eastern Europe.

"There is no question that many women are having abortions because of this," a Warsaw pediatrician said of the Chernobyl accident, which occurred on April 26. "It is very sad, but they are afraid, and what can you tell them?"

In an indication that the fear of birth defects was widespread, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, which staunchly opposes abortion on principle, and the Polish government, which permits them without restriction, have both issued statements in recent weeks assuring women that the fallout posed no hazard to a developing fetus.

"It must be stressed with all firmness that the current situation is not an indication for abortion," Dr. Krystyna Bozkowa, the head of Poland's Institute of Mother and Child, said in a recent interview. The interview appeared in the government newspaper Rzeczpospolita under the headline "Unjustified Worries of Future Mothers."

Bozkowa warned doctors that approving abortions on the grounds of possible radiation effects "can be viewed as highly irresponsible."

Surge in Abortions

Reports in the official Yugoslav press have indicated a similar surge in abortions. In Hungary, doctors have appealed to women not to panic.

"What frightens me is that pregnant women rushing to us in desperation want to have their pregnancies terminated," geneticist Imre Feiffer said in a program on Hungarian radio. "I beg, let no one even think of having an abortion because of this."

Almost certainly, women elsewhere would have felt similar anxiety in the same circumstances. But in Eastern Europe, fear of the fallout was intensified by an underlying distrust of Communist regimes, most of which are widely regarded as little more than the proxy agents of Soviet rule. Restrictive news policies in the midst of the crisis aggravated this distrust, along with fears that information about life-threatening radiation was being suppressed.

The amount of information governments allowed in the press and on radio and television varied greatly across Eastern Europe, with Poland and Hungary proving the most open of the seven Warsaw Pact countries. By contrast, Czechoslovakia's rigidly orthodox regime maintained nearly total silence, except to insist that the fallout was harmless and to criticize Western news reports for what it called anti-Soviet hysteria. Bulgaria followed a similar pattern.

In private conversations, but only in private, Hungarian and Polish journalists and some party officials voiced dissatisfaction with Moscow's failure to give prompt public notice of the accident, particularly to its neighbors, and its general reticence in the days that followed. But in deference to Moscow, the censors kept such views out of print.

This squeamishness did not escape notice by the public, which responded with anti-Soviet jokes and a flood of terrifying, if scarcely credible, rumors about deaths and injuries from the fallout. Nor did the absence of any apologies for the contamination go unnoticed, when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev delivered his first public statement on Chernobyl 18 days after the accident.

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