Croatian lawmakers from nine different political parties have called for a parliamentary inquiry into ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ following an openDemocracy special investigation that revealed numerous examples of “deliberate disinformation” targeting vulnerable women around the world.
This month, openDemocracy released the results of a nine-month, eighteen-country investigation into these centres, run by religious groups, that seek to reach women considering abortions and stop them from making that choice. Many of these centres also oppose contraception.
Croatia was one of the countries in this investigation which sent undercover reporters to dozens of these centres internationally. Many of these reporters were told similar things, including that abortion increases women’s risks of getting cancer (which most experts agree is unsupported by evidence).
At a press conference in Zagreb on Friday, more than twenty MPs announced their call for a parliamentary commission to be established to “to identify all the facts” about these centres in Croatia including their financing, practices and impact on women’s reproductive and sexual rights and health.
This inquiry should also investigate links between centres in Croatia and “international associations and networks aimed at taking away women’s right to an abortion”, the MPs said, comparing disinformation in this area to that around vaccines that has had “significant impact” on public health.
Nine months ago, we began following the money of two US religious right groups. Then, we deployed our own global network – of feminist investigative journalists.
Their call for action follows others around the world including from more than thirty European legislators who demanded “firm action” against crisis pregnancy centres that disseminate misleading information on abortion, calling this “an ethical violation that undermines women’s health”.
Authorities in South Africa and Mexico City have already pledged action in response to openDemocracy’s investigation, and today Uganda’s top reproductive health official said such centres are not currently regulated by the Ministry of Health and “must be apprehended”.
Abortion has been legal in Croatia since 1978, up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. Anti-abortion groups have for years lobbied for this to change, however, and for abortion rights to be restricted. The government is now rewriting the law, but with elections upcoming, both the time frame and content are unclear.
As part of openDemocracy’s global investigation, in Croatia an undercover reporter was warned by staff at one of these ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ that she could face “post-abortion syndrome”, which she was told is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and affects “the majority of women”.
Reputable research has debunked the existence of such a syndrome, however, along with any link between having an abortion and experiencing mental health problems in general. The reporter in Croatia was also warned that she could die from an abortion, though deaths from safe abortion are extremely rare.
European lawmakers described openDemocracy’s investigation in a letter to European Commission and Council of Europe officials as revealing “a global coordinated project of deliberate disinformation aiming to introduce additional obstacles for women who seek to terminate their pregnancy”.
Belgian Green MEP Petra De Sutter, a doctor and chair of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive rights, condemned “deception and disinformation” against women considering abortions as “not only morally wrong but a threat to democracy and the rule of law”.
Croatian MEP Fred Matić, who is also the European Parliament’s special rapporteur on sexual and reproductive rights and health, added that openDemocracy’s findings are “undoubtedly a violation of human rights, a grave risk for the lives of women and a serious threat to democracy”.
At the Croatian press conference, MPs Bojan Glavašević, Sabina Glasovac and Vesna Pusić also denounced practices that “deprive women of access to health services as well as access to accurate, evidence-based information”.
The MPs proposal for an inquiry, which was backed by MPs from nine parties and two independents, notes that Croatia’s constitution enshrines “gender equality [as] one of the highest values of the constitutional order… while sexual and reproductive rights are an integral part of human rights”.
They also cite 2015 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination recommendations that “Croatia must prevent setbacks in sexual and reproductive health, including with respect to access to safe abortion.”
They warn that anti-abortion groups providing pregnancy counselling may “try to portray themselves as providing professional medical and psychological services” though they “are exempt from the regulatory, licensing and government oversight that is mandatory for healthcare providers.”
Among their proposed questions for such an inquiry, the MPs want it to establish how many of these crisis pregnancy centres exist in Croatia and how many women have been in contact with them over the past ten years.
Given the “significant impact” of disinformation about vaccines, they argued, “it is important to prevent similar negative consequences for women's health through disinformation about pregnancy termination.”