RIGA - It is impossible to walk through Old Town Riga without noticing an unusual exhibit near the Laima’s Clock. Several rows of little curled baby figures and plaques command passerby attention. These figures and plaques are the work of the group “For Life” (“Par dzivibu”), an organization aimed at reducing the number of abortions in Latvia, currently claiming 400 abortions for every 1,000 live births.
The reaction from the community has been strong; the flowers by the baby figures have been placed by ordinary citizens and tourists, moved by the stories on the plaques.
“My mummy experienced a negative attitude towards her pregnancy from everyone around her. My daddy demanded an abortion. Mummy felt complete emotional pressure. My mum wanted me but gave into this pressure and killed me,” reads one of the plaques.
Statistically speaking, abortion is at an all-time low in Latvia. Since regaining independence up until 1999, the number of abortions exceeded live births. In 1991, there were 34,633 live births and 44,886 abortions were recorded. Since 1999, the number of abortions has dropped steeply.
Most abortions are undergone by women of working age, with the largest number undergone by women aged 20-24. While an argument for the economic pressure on abortion is valid, church and pro-life organizations argue that the support for mothers is enough to live on.
Currently, in Latvia for the first year of a child’s life, the mother receives a “mother’s salary” nearly equivalent to what she was earning before the birth of her child. However, after the first year, the support from the state drops drastically.
“My daughter receives 8 lats (11 euros) per month for her child. It is laughable. It would be better to receive nothing,” said Skaidrite, a pensioner in Liepaja.
Vita, a government worker in her mid-twenties explained her viewpoint: “We have some irresponsible mothers here, so I totally agree that it’s better not to have a baby than to starve it to death or abandon it afterwards. In Latvia, a politician suggested that ‘problem minorities’ can have sterilization for free, if they wish to have it done - because they usually complain about contraception being too expensive - but the human rights organizations said it was discrimination. But if they looked at the statistics, they’d see that it’s really the problem minorities that either don’t take care of the kids or get an abortion. So, I can’t see why they couldn’t be sterilized if they wished so; it would be much cheaper and safer.”
An international meeting on safe abortion care and related reproductive health services was held in Latvia in May 2012. Latvia’s Minister of Health, Ingrida Circene, commented during the meeting that “in the last 20 years, the incidence of induced abortion has decreased more than fivefold in Latvia. However, the question of prevention of abortion is still topical and particular attention has to be paid to the education of young people of school age, as lack of information is the main reason for unplanned pregnancy and induced abortion among youth.”
The areas of Riga and Daugavpils have the highest number of recorded abortions, while Daugavpils, Riga, Jurmala and Liepaja have the highest number of live births.
Abortion up to 12 weeks is currently allowed by Latvian law.
“Many times these mothers are concerned with comfort, and a child is not part of their lifestyle,” Janis Plavins, organizer of the campaign “For Life” explained. “Even if the economic situation was better, people will not be satisfied.”
Statistically, since the financial crisis began in Latvia in 2008, abortion has significantly decreased, from 10,425 abortions in 2008, to 7,443 in 2010.
The current “For Life” campaign, despite the prominent message, does not wish to outlaw abortion outright. “Our mission is simply to educate. Many of these mothers who wish to get abortions are not aware of the consequences. Our goal is to provide knowledge to them so they can make an educated choice,” Plavins continued.
Plavins also told The Baltic Times that he envisioned a system that Germany currently has, in which abortion is legal, but only after mandatory counseling. “Counseling and classes are given at various crisis centers. About 95 percent of the women who go through these courses end up carrying the child to term,” explained Plavins.
The main help center which provides counseling and courses, Crisis Pregnancy Center (Krizes Grutniecibas Centrs) is funded and supported by various Christian organizations.
However, the methods used and information presented in these courses may be misleading. A brief look at the sponsored organizations shows that the groups are presenting information linking abortion and contraceptives to breast cancer, as well as explaining that abortion leads to infertility later in life.
The centers also emphasize the emotional side-effects of abortion, including the contested PASS (Post-abortion Stress Syndrome), which has not been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association. The center also educates on the high suicide rates of women who have terminated their pregnancies, something which has not been scientifically proven.
The idea of women’s rights plays into the equation as well. However, where to draw the line between women’s rights and children’s rights can become confusing.
“A woman’s rights become children’s rights at the moment of conception. At that moment, it is no longer about a woman’s right, but responsibility for the life of the child,” explained Plavins.
The reaction to the campaign has gained much attention, in terms of the presentation, not necessarily the issue at hand.
“Why would they have this here? People don’t want to see this walking through town,” said a tourist from Spain.
When standing at the display one overhears a broad range of opinions, from those who support the efforts, to those who are appalled and disturbed.
“In my view, it is good that at least people care one way or another,” said Plavins. “Our responsibility is to tell the truth. We don’t have the right to punish anyone, just to educate them. That is our goal,” he continued.
Gynecology student at Riga’s Stradins University Didzis explained: “While the methods are somewhat grotesque, the fact is that the subject is being talked about now more than ever. The awareness the campaign has brought to the issue is good.”
Feminist organizations and academics have accused the campaign of attacking women. “They are preying on uneducated women and filling their minds with a biased opinion, when they are in an emotional state,” explained an anonymous nurse at Stradins University Hospital. “What really needs to happen is to start at the base, to educate young people while they are still at school about how life is created and the precautions that are needed to stop unwanted pregnancies,” she continued.
The organization Papardes Zieds provides such health and safe-sex education to young people in Latvia as well as provides family planning services.
In addition, many citizens argue that the way to decrease the number of abortions and encourage the birth of more Latvians is through a change in the economic situation. “More actions should be taken to insure the economic wellbeing of Latvian citizens, perhaps then they’d be more likely to want to bring a child into the world here,” said a Latvian pensioner looking at the exhibit.
“Of course no one wants babies to be killed, but one must face reality; sometimes certain people should not have children,” she continued.
While suspicions of international funding and church funded campaigns arose, the “For Life” campaign states that they are all self-financed and have received support from television stations for running information on the campaign as well as from the city for placing the display in Old Town Riga.
Some citizen activists who are against abortion have tried other ways of protest. Youtube user Lacpurnis95 has had an ongoing anti-abortion campaign since February 2012 which involves activating fire alarms in various buildings. It is unclear, however, whether or not these buildings are somehow related to abortion procedures.
Given that the number of abortions has gone from over 38,000 in 1991 to around 7,000 in 2011, it shows that progress in abortion prevention has been made. While there has been a mass emigration of citizens as well, which has led to a bit of a population decline, the fact remains that there are far fewer abortions today than there were 20 years ago.
“After this campaign is over, we will see what more we can do,” said Plavins. “At the moment, there is no concrete future goal.”
The campaign “For Life” began Sept. 10 and continues in Old Town Riga.