With help from American activists, Ukrainian women are being misled about abortion

As part of openDemocracy’s global investigation, many other undercover reporters visiting other such centres in Heartbeat’s network were told remarkably similar things, including incorrect information about cancer risks that was repeated by staff at some of these centres from Italy to Ecuador.

In Ukraine, Ministry of Health guidelines say that “healthcare providers” should “be respectful of the patient and be able to help her maintain her dignity”. Counsellors asked about abortion should only provide information on different procedures and never intimidate, condemn or force women into decisions.

But here’s the catch: the Kharkiv centre I contacted for help appears to fall beyond the ministry’s reach, as it isn’t – and doesn’t have to be – on the list of officially accredited healthcare organisations. This means there’s no state monitoring, or quality assessment, of its services to pregnant women.

Hillary Margolis, Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Europe and Central Asia and women’s rights called our findings “disturbing”.

“These centres prey on women and girls who are often at their most vulnerable”, she said, calling on governments to make sure that their advertising is clear so that “people understand immediately what these centres really represent.”

Kateryna Levchenko, the government’s commissioner for gender policy, said she was not aware of the centre in Kharkiv but that “counselling is a service” that should not be prohibited but regulated by “public organisations, and citizens themselves – if they see that a [government] approved standard is not being met, then they can apply to those institutions that issue a license to operate”.

From the US to Ukraine

Unlike in the US, where there are thousands of these anti-abortion pregnancy centres, they are not at the fore of public debate in Ukraine. Meanwhile, there have been several populist and nationalist political proposals in recent years to change the law and restrict Ukrainian women’s abortion rights.

openDemocracy’s investigation also comes amidst increasing signs of intensifying US Christian right activity and connections in Ukraine – including links to the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families network that holds big annual summits and lists Heartbeat as a previous partner on its website.

Since 1955, women in Ukraine have had legal rights to abortions on request, paid for by the state, through the 12th week of pregnancy (and after this period in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformities and threats to the woman’s health).

A 2017 bill would have limited legal abortions to cases of rape, fetal impairment, or to preserve the woman’s health. A previous 2013 bill tried to introduce criminal liability for abortion and fines for abortion ‘propaganda’. Each of these proposals was met with resistance and was ultimately rejected by parliament.

But January, a new cross-party group of nearly 300 MPs was unveiled under the banner: “Values. Dignity. Family”. One of this group’s leaders, Oleg Voloshin from the party of Putin’s ally Medvedchuk, said he hopes the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families network will hold their next global gathering in Kyiv.

The World Congress of Families is led by the US activist Brian Brown who visited Ukraine last year to participate in an ultra-conservative ‘family forum’ in Kyiv. This March, he met Voloshin and Sviatoslav Yurash, the young co-leader of the “Values. Dignity. Family” group in Ukraine’s parliament.

“We agreed to coordinate efforts in everything, adopt international experience in legislation… and also do everything to prove: that to be part of the modern world there is no need to bury our eternal values under the cover of a rainbow flag, wrote Voloshin on Facebook, posting a picture of himself and Brown.

The World Congress of Families also has significant Russian ties. It was founded after a 1995 Moscow meeting. Alexei Komov, a close associate of ‘Orthodox oligarch’ Konstantin Malofeev, is on the board of the US group behind it.

Olena Suslova, a researcher and human rights activist who founded the Women’s Information Consultative Center, says such ties between Russian and US ultra-conservatives are a major driver of anti-abortion initiatives in Ukraine.

These initiatives intensified, she said, after 2010 when President V. Yanukovych entered office and a wide range of church-related NGOs were established.

Success and shame

Founded in 2003, the Kharkiv centre reaches hundreds of mainly “unbelieving” women a year, “who are seeking abortion as a way out of the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy”, its director Elena Batina claimed in 2015.

The Kharkiv centre has no known links to the World Congress of Families but Heartbeat has given it small grants in recent years. In 2016, Heartbeat’s president Jor-El Godsey also praised Batina at a 2016 anti-abortion summit in Atlanta, saying that she “has been instrumental in fanning to flame the work of pregnancy help organisations across Eastern Europe”.

A ‘success story’ celebrated on Heartbeat’s website is about a child it claims was born after Kharkiv centre staff prayed and persuaded her mother to give birth.

Others, however, have questioned the effectiveness of these centres. Halyna Maistruk at Ukraine’s Women’s Health and Family Planning foundation argues that the number of abortions women have will only decrease if more people have access to sex education and contraception, both of which are currently limited).

“We still have Soviet-educated teachers who don’t want to talk to children about such topics and we still have parents who don’t speak to children about them”, said Maistruk. Meanwhile the Kharkiv centre does have programmes for teenagers – teaching abstinence and “true love waits”.

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