by Jessie Lau and Tatev Hovhannisyan
Illustration: Inge Snip
This article was first published by openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project.
AFTER LITHUANIA donated COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan in June, many people in the country rushed out to buy Lithuanian beer, chocolates and other products in gratitude.
Taiwanese social media influencer Jill Chang directed her followers to a list of Lithuanian charities, triggering a flood of donations. But she says she didn’t know that one of the charities had a controversial agenda: campaigning against abortion.
Within weeks, Chang had helped to raise about €140,000 for the Krizinio Nėštumo Centras (KNC–literally ‘crisis pregnancy centre’) in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. She then received information and an online backlash that surprised her.
KNC’s website says that it seeks “to prevent abortion in Lithuania”–which has been legal in the country for generations, since 1955.
The centre’s director Zita Tomilinienė has said: “if a woman is expecting an unwanted child from an unloved man, the best she can do is to carry the baby and give birth.”
Chang shared the group’s GlobalGiving page, where it asks givers to “Save a new life by supporting pregnant women.”
“When I did my due diligence, I […] mainly looked at their financial reports, board meeting notes and the decision-making process,” Chang told openDemocracy.
‘People were invited to donate on social networks, during TV shows’
CHANG ENCOURAGED her 15,000 Facebook followers to support other Lithuanian charities working in women’s and children’s health including cancer care.
Her appeal was noticed in Lithuania. KNC’s director Tomilinienė told Lithuanian media that the call for donations became “quite widely known in Taiwan–people were invited to donate on social networks, during TV shows”.
Chang told openDemocracy she was “surprised” by the attention her call received. After just a few days, KNC had already received 87 donations from Taiwan.
However, when she shared this news online, some of her followers told her that the centre had an anti-abortion agenda and a “religious background”.
“After I researched [the ‘crisis pregnancy centre’] more, I thought: this is insane,” Yinyan Zhang said in a Facebook post that garnered 588 shares and was reposted by other users commenting on Chang’s post. Zhang warned people “to be aware” and “not give money to abusers”.
Chang wrote a “long letter” to KNC in Vilnius, asking for clarification. In reply, they said they “respect women’s choices” and aim to support all women who seek help–regardless of whether or not they decide to continue with their pregnancy and give birth.
She shared this reply in another Facebook post, thanking users for “raising their concerns” and providing a contact for those with further questions.
“Donors actually care about what they’re giving to–that’s a positive thing,” Chang told openDemocracy. She said that, in the future, she will be “more careful” when sharing anything to do with religion or politics.
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).
However, women may face pressure not to have abortions, including from conservative doctors. Surgical terminations are the only method available (not medical abortions), and several recent campaigns have pushed for more restrictive legislation.
KNC’s is often the main point of contact for women considering abortions in Lithuania. It runs high-profile ads including on TV, and is frequently in the limelight because of its connections to powerful people.
It is supported by several celebrities including TV host Rolandas Mackevicius. Diana Nausėdienė, wife of the Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda, has hosted events for the centre at the presidential palace.
However, Margarita Jankauskaitė of the Centre for Equality Advancement in Vilnius, called the centre a “threat to women’s reproductive rights”. It “makes women the focus of the problem and does not talk about structural problems (social, economic obstacles, possible violence or sexual coercion) or just free women’s will,” she said.
Lithuanian human rights lawyer and feminist researcher Laima Vaige added: “The main ‘help’ [from KNC] for unwillingly pregnant women is providing information impartially, aimed at convincing them to carry the pregnancy to the term.”
Abortion Law in Taiwan
TIES BETWEEN LITHUANIA and Taiwan have deepened in recent months as both have positioned themselves as defenders of a liberal world order, and as critics of Chinese authoritarianism (Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory).
In May, the Lithuanian parliament criticized Beijing for human rights violations and quit its ‘17+1’ platform for engaging with central and east European countries. In August, Beijing recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded that Vilnius recall its Chinese envoy in turn.
This month, after Beijing sent a record number of fighter planes into Taiwan’s defense zone, the island’s defense minister said relations are “at their worst in more than 40 years” and predicted that Beijing will launch a “full-scale invasion by 2025”.
Since 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s first female president, its government has pushed its inclusive, democratic credentials. In 2019, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
Abortion up to 24 weeks is legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if it risks the woman or child’s health or is “likely to affect mental health or family life”. Yet minors require a guardian’s consent. Married women need their spouse’s permission (though in 2020 the government announced plans to eliminate this requirement after a public petition).
“Religious groups” have in recent years attempted to further restrict access to abortion services, says Xiuyi Lin from the Awakening Foundation, a women’s rights group in Taiwan. The proposals (which failed) included a ‘heartbeat bill’ forbidding abortions after eight weeks, and “a mandatory ‘reflection period’ for women seeking an abortion”.
However, abortion is not currently a high-profile issue in Taiwan. Which makes the story of Taiwanese social media users donating en masse to an anti-abortion campaign group situated halfway across the world all the more surprising.