The Lithuanian parliament

(WOMENSENEWS)–A bill currently under review by the parliament in Lithuania–which has one of the lowest abortion rates among Baltic nations–would create one of the most restrictive bans in all of Europe.

The bill–formally called the Draft Act of the Republic of Lithuania on the Protection of Human Life in the Prenatal Stage–is currently pending review by the Health Committee, which is expected to wait until after the Oct. 12 parliamentary elections to present its conclusions and recommendations.

Proponents of the ban have kept it low on the political agenda and have successfully avoided making it a major issue during the election campaign.

Women’s rights activists have sought to raise awareness about the bill and its impact as they fear it will be adopted in a rush and without a real and open debate in society if socially conservative parties win the elections.

The draft–strongly backed by the Catholic Church–says “all issues on the protection of life in the prenatal stage should be considered as giving priority to the rights of a child.”

Exceptions to the ban would only apply when a pregnancy endangers the life or health of the woman, when a pregnancy is caused by a criminal act or when the fetus has been diagnosed with a severe disability.

Abortion is currently illegal in three of the 27 European Union countries. In Malta abortion is prohibited in all circumstances; specific provisions allowing an abortion to save the woman’s life were removed from the criminal code in 1981. Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since 1861 and is only permitted to save the life of the woman. Poland first restricted abortion in 1993 following the end of Communist Party rule and reaffirmed its opposition to abortion in 1997.

Soviet Era Abortion Law

Under existing law a Lithuanian woman can choose to legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy for any reason up to the 12th week, as in most Western countries. The current legislation has been inherited from its status as a republic in the former Soviet Union and has not been changed since the country’s independence in 1991.

Among its neighbors, Lithuania has a relatively low abortion rate, spurring the Lithuanian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which does not support abortion as a pregnancy regulation method, to nonetheless question the purpose of the bill. There were 14 abortions per 1,000 Lithuanian women aged 15 to 45 in 2004, far below neighboring Estonia and Latvia, where the rates, respectively, were 33 and 27 abortions per 1,000 women.

Algimantas Ramonas, chair of the National Families and Parents Association of Lithuania, is one of the bill’s strong supporters.

“Every child has the right to be born and to live,” he told Women’s eNews. “Of course a woman has the right to decide on her sexual life and plan her family, but she also has responsibilities. A pregnant woman has a human being inside her, which is not just another part of her body, and she should be proud of it.”

On the other side of the bill, Esmeralda Kuliestyle, director of the Vilnius-based Family Planning and Sexual Health Association, decries it as a violation of women’s freedom to make their own decisions.

“This is a very dangerous step for Lithuanian women,” says Kuliestyle. “It could lead to serious health complications and even to an increase in the maternal mortality rate because of illegal and unsafe abortions.”

Authors Sit on Review Committees

While earlier versions of the draft legislation were judged unconstitutional by the parliament’s legal affairs committee, the latest draft has been approved by this committee and, last April, also by the human rights committee. Two of the five original authors of the bill sit on these committees.

The authors justify their proposal, saying the bill “reflects the teaching of the Catholic Church and John Paul II.”

Kuliestyle objects to the heavy involvement of the Catholic Church in the matter.

“Priests are everywhere: They appear on television, on the radio, in newspapers and even on the Internet,” she says. “They say that using contraceptive methods is immoral and that abortion is a crime. They have too much influence, particularly on politicians.”

The Catholic Church has traditionally played an important role in Lithuania. During Soviet occupation, the church’s underground activities in support of dissidents were a major asset in the struggle for the country’s independence. Since then, its influence on society has remained high.

The draft law has been criticized for its vagueness, as it does not clearly state which criminal sanctions women and doctors involved with illegal abortions would face. Because the bill seeks to amend the criminal code and would therefore establish a criminal link between abortion and murder, judges would have discretion to sentence violators of the law to several years’ imprisonment.

70 Percent Opposed to Criminalization

A survey conducted by the Family Planning and Sexual Health Association shows that, while most Lithuanians would personally prefer to avoid terminating pregnancies, more than 70 percent of the population regards abortion as matter of individual choice and opposes criminalization.

Authors of the bill take both a moral and practical stance, arguing that abortion indicates a “low moral level of society and a critical demographic situation” in Lithuania. The population in the country has continuously declined–by an average of half a percentage point annually–since the beginning of the 1990s, and the total fertility rate decreased from two children per woman in 1990 to 1.3 children in 2006. Supporters of the bill say an abortion ban would encourage population growth.

Kuliestyle rejects that, arguing that its main effect will be to discriminate against lower-income women. “No matter if abortion is legal or not, women who decide to abort will do it anyway. Those who can afford it will travel to nearby countries where the law isn’t so strict. Others who don’t have money will turn to unsafe underground operations and put their health at risk.”

Since neighboring Poland, a country looked upon by supporters of the legislation in Lithuania, passed its strict abortion ban in 1993, the total fertility rate fell to 1.23 births per woman in 2006 from a higher rate of 2.04 births per woman in 1990. This situation mirrors a general trend in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

Earlier this year 110 members of the European Parliament–out of 785–sent a letter to Lithuanian deputies urging them to reject the bill, describing it as a “serious backlash on women’s reproductive health rights in Lithuania.”

Women’s rights advocates worry that the bill will be passed as anti-choice factions gain ground at the expense of progressive women’s rights.

In June the Lithuanian parliament redefined “family” exclusively as a married, heterosexual couple and their children. As a result, single mothers or fathers, unmarried partners and grandparents raising children no longer constitute a family or qualify for the same level of government assistance as a “traditional family.”

Elisabeth Roy Trudel is a freelance journalist from Montreal, Canada, who frequently writes on human rights and social issues.

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