50.50: Opinion

I told Lithuanian women’s stories about abortion, and was called ‘tone-deaf’

Most women don’t regret their abortions – but most mainstream media coverage in Lithuania would make you think otherwise

Elena Reimeryte.jpg
Elena Reimeryte
8 July 2021, 7.02am
Protesters in Lithuania express their support for a woman's right to choose
Women's March Movement, Lithuania

In 2010, I met a general practitioner in Lithuania who said that if her young daughters came to her asking for an abortion, she would evict them from home. She said she always tries to talk her patients out of abortions.

I had forgotten about this until I met Adele – a woman interviewed for a recent online documentary I worked on with the LRT national broadcaster. When she was 18, she had a surgical abortion in a hospital in the capital, Vilnius. She said that as the nurse administered the anaesthetic, she whispered to her: “Murderer”.

Why do some medical professionals feel they have the right to question or pressure women when they decide to terminate a pregnancy? This was one of the first questions I asked myself. Many months and two documentaries later, I am also puzzled by how most of my colleagues in the Lithuanian media cover these issues.

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Abortion in Lithuania is legal and available on request until the twelfth week of pregnancy, and up to 22 weeks in some cases (for instance, if the woman’s life or health is at risk). But a 1994 order from the minister of health, which is the only legal document guaranteeing these rights, states that women must be informed about abortion’s supposed negative health effects and “moral harm” (which some medical professionals seem to use to push their anti-abortion views on women).

Elena Reimeryte
Elena Reimeryte

There have also been several campaigns in recent years to adopt a more restrictive abortion law, and even now women who choose to end a pregnancy have to undergo surgery (medical abortion pills are not legal).

Much mainstream media coverage of abortion represents it as something that women in Lithuania regret – or that they feel sorry about and apologise for. Women who talk publicly about their abortions often use phrases like “forgiving myself” and say they light candles at cemeteries for their “unborn children”.

Negative – and dubious – statistics on the supposed consequences of abortion feature widely too. Do most abortions happen because of pressure from spouses or family members? There’s no credible evidence for this – but this is one of several shaky facts you may pick up from the mainstream news.

Research shows that most women do not regret their abortions or face negative consequences, but their stories are rarely heard in Lithuania. This is what the recent documentary I worked on sought to change.

Most women do not regret their abortions or face negative consequences, but their stories are rarely heard in Lithuania

We heard from women who had been called murderers by nurses supposed to treat them; women who’d had very supportive abortion experiences abroad; and a woman who was in her thirties at the time of her abortion, and described how this had no impact on her ability to have a child three years later, when she felt ready. 

We received a lot of positive feedback from women, who said it was important to them to hear these stories. But the film was also criticised and caused a backlash. Some journalists, who appear to oppose abortion themselves, called it “tone-deaf”.

Complaints were also lodged with the Lithuanian Radio and Television Committee, a government body that investigates complaints about the media. It concluded that we had committed no actionable offence but should be “more professional when discussing painful topics for society”, and pick our sources more carefully.

‘Lithuanian women deserve much better’

We then made a second documentary, which focused on medical abortion and asked why it is forbidden in Lithuania if it is safe and easier to provide than a surgical abortion during COVID-19 restrictions. We also looked at ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ (CPCs) and how they try to ‘counsel’ women to continue unwanted pregnancies.

An investigator on our team called a CPC in Vilnius, undercover, to find out what kind of advice they give women. The answers included a contrast between “the joy of giving life” and trauma and a missed opportunity to have children.

Again, after the film went out, complaints were filed to other government bodies that oversee ethics in journalism and the mass media. The CPC said the film falsely depicted it as a radical organisation, and wanted the documentary to be removed from the internet. These complaints were rejected.

This particular CPC is frequently in the limelight because of its connections to powerful people. It is supported by celebrities, and Diana Nausėdienė, wife of the Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda, hosts events for the CPC at the presidential palace. It also has ads everywhere and runs big TV promo campaigns.

I continued researching these issues, including misinformation from such centres globally. I learned that I’m not the only one to have faced pressure from anti-abortion activists, to tell only their story. The head of one women’s hospital said “there is pressure for us gynaecologists, to send all [women] to crisis pregnancy centres,” pressure that, she said, comes from such centres and the health ministry.

Over the last year, I’ve seen how much of the mainstream media routinely contributes to a situation where women’s rights are undermined. But I’ve also learned how much storytelling and narratives matter. And Lithuanian women deserve much better than what most of the country’s media is currently providing.

This article was co-published with NARA

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