PODGORICA -- During recent debate in parliament on the dwindling proportion of newborn girls in Montenegro, a lawmaker "sincerely condemned" the trend but brushed it off as an unavoidable result of medical "technique" and the state of "the world" today.
He then followed his blasé allusion to family-building-by-abortion with a kicker.
"Every citizen has the right to influence the reproduction of their children," ruling coalition member Dragan Ivanovic told fellow legislators on May 24.
The use of abortion to choose sons over daughters has been illegal in this demographically challenged former Yugoslav republic of some 623,000 people since 2009.
But Ivanovic's comments didn't raise a fuss among his coalition allies, many of whom were elected on a platform of strong support for the Serbian Orthodox Church, which strictly opposes abortion.
Ivanovic did, however, get an earful from women's rights defenders.
The executive director of the Montenegrin Women's Lobby, Aida Petrovic, condemned it as "shameful" and tantamount to "public support for selective abortions."
The Women's Rights Center, an NGO in Podgorica that has fought for tighter enforcement to stop what are known as sex-selective abortions, called the nonexistent "right" Ivanovic was describing a violation of the constitution and antidiscrimination laws. "A member of the Montenegrin parliament should know that," it said.
Sensing a tide of outrage, other politicians joined in.
The opposition Democratic Party of Socialists called it a sign of a retrograde government that treats women as though they are "obviously unwanted."
Aleksa Becic, the president of the parliament, apologized to the public and called for "messages of respect for the right of everyone to be born, regardless of whether [it’s a] male or female fetus."
The chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on gender equality, Bozena Jelusic, condemned Ivanovic and described selective abortion as a cancer on Montenegrin society.
By May 25, Ivanovic was apologizing, too.
He said he opposes selective abortions and that his statement was "reckless."
"I apologize to all mothers and all those who were affected" by the remarks, Ivanovic added.
It was seemingly rare unity at the top for a country that recently turned decades of political stagnation on its head and still struggles to contain ethnic and nationalist resentments simmering since its 2006 split with neighboring Serbia.
But it also spoke of the heavy undercurrent of acceptance in Montenegro for what demographers, sociologists, and rights groups warn is a problem that perpetuates gender discrimination and inequity, sends dangerous signals to society, and exacts a particular toll on would-be mothers.
"Colleague Ivanovic merely said what, unfortunately, is the reality in Montenegro, and he also condemned it," Danijela Djurovic, a party ally and member of the parliamentary committee on gender equality, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "His definite position is that discrimination on the grounds of sex, before birth or after birth, or on any other grounds, is something that is definitely unacceptable."
But even on such an uncommonly difficult problem to track, official figures tell a different story.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts agree that the naturally occurring variance in human births is currently around 105 males for every 100 females.
The difference, or imbalance, between the expected number and a country's actual figure is the result of multiple factors but is often a telltale sign of sex-selective abortion.
In such cases, pregnant women use the results of technology generally designed to spot fetal abnormalities to decide whether to keep or terminate a fetus depending on the sex.
Such procedures -- along with postnatal abandonment or worse -- are notoriously common in China and India, where cultural and other biases encourage the preference for a son.
But while its cumulative trajectory has improved slightly over the past decade, Montenegro also maintains one of the 10 highest imbalances in the world: around 108 newborn boys for every 100 girls in 2020.
Amid signs of rising sex-selective abortions after the fall of communism, it banned them more than a decade ago. The use of early genetic tests to determine gender is also explicitly prohibited under Montenegrin law.
Still, Montenegro was flagged by UN and European experts nearly a decade ago as suffering more than most from a birth imbalance, with indicators also high among regional neighbors Albania, Kosovo, and parts of what is now North Macedonia.
In 2012, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights unsuccessfully urged Montenegrin authorities to investigate the prevalence of sex-selective abortions there.
Two years later, the Council of Europe urged national bans among member states, calling the practice "a clear case of discrimination with strong elements of physical and psychological violence."
The deadline for having a legal abortion in Montenegro is 10 weeks, and access to the requisite testing is limited. But it has long been an "open secret" that some Montenegrin women travel to nearby Serbia or otherwise evade such guidelines for telltale tests of a fetus's gender.
A major national gender equality index commissioned and developed among local, EU, and UN bodies that was published two years ago assigned Montenegro a score of 55, well behind the EU average of 67+ and thus "[lagging] behind most of the developed EU countries."
More recently, a slew of sociological, anthropological, and ethnographic studies suggest that Montenegro remains stubbornly susceptible to sex-selective abortion.
Diana Kiscenko, a lecturer in social anthropology at Riga Stradins University, published an ethnographic study in April on a Montenegrin "son preference and inheritance practices" in the country.
In the report featuring the study, the authors sought to avoid reiterating "balkanizing and patronizing standpoints" that frequently arise during discussion of gender in Montenegro and the region.
Among other things, they highlighted complex ties between material and economic circumstances, on one hand, and social and cultural mindsets, on the other.
They acknowledged the role of kinship and property relationships in gender practices.
"It is a very complex story," Kiscenko tells RFE/RL. "It is not only about tradition [as Montenegrins mostly see it] where the son continues the lineage, takes over the family’s property, business, and is seen as the one who will take care of the aging parents, but also about very practical aspects of the daily life of men and women in Montenegro."
She says the situation in Montenegro is "statistically challenging to assess" due to its size and "empirical studies...are scarce."
"Compared to other countries with a skewed sex ratio at birth," Kiscenko thinks Montenegro's imbalance is only "slightly affected by sex selection."
In her study, Kiscenko delves into the experience of a young mother from Podgorica, whom she calls "Ivana," to illustrate the familial, work, and ownership obstacles facing an untold number of Montenegrin women.
I would say that property ownership and inheritance as a gendered practice influences pregnancy and abortion for people in Montenegro. However, I would not claim that it is the only reason that one may terminate a pregnancy."-- Jennifer Zenovich, San Francisco State University
Starting off poor, Ivana's parents eventually made enough money reselling clothing -- on the fringes of the law -- to build their own two-story house in the capital.
Ivana had an older sister, but always wanted a younger brother.
She later learned that her father and his side of the family were aggressively pressuring her mother for the same thing.
Eventually, Ivana and the rest of the family got their wish.
Years later, Ivana said, her mother visited both adult daughters "to inform them that the family's house would be given to their younger brother" and to suggest that her daughters "get married in order to acquire a house."
Ivana said she was not "OK" with it, but "I got used to it."
"Only later, as an adult," Kiscenko writes, "did she find out that every time her mother became pregnant, she went to Belgrade in Serbia to undergo an amniocentesis to determine the sex of the fetus and, if it was female, she had an abortion."
Ivana's mother underwent four abortions over the span of a decade.
Looking back, Ivana recalled as an 8- or 9-year-old urging her mother to give her a little brother, and her mother always agreeing.
"Can you imagine that?" Ivana said.
Jennifer Zenovich, a lecturer at San Francisco State University who wrote an auto-ethnography on "the property of gender" in Montenegro in 2016, tells RFE/RL that she "[doubts] that there is an epidemic of abortion of female fetuses" there.
She cites the country's low birth rate, the cost of such a procedure, possibly including travel to avoid the ban, cultural stigmas, birth-control practices, and women's employment numbers.
"I would say that property ownership and inheritance as a gendered practice influences pregnancy and abortion for people in Montenegro," Zenovich says. "However, I would not claim that it is the only reason that one may terminate a pregnancy."
She stresses that pregnant people are "absolutely entitled" to make decisions about their bodies.
"The reasons one terminates a pregnancy are surely culturally influenced, but the decision to have a baby or not is ultimately that of the pregnant person and what is right for them and their body," Zenovich says.
She says reports of a sex imbalance in society "might trigger nationalist worry for the state and its ability to reproduce itself."
But Christophe Guilmoto, a demographer and researcher at the Center for Population and Development at the University of Paris (IRD-Ceped) who has written extensively about sex-selective abortion in the Balkans and around the world, is convinced Montenegro has a problem.
A lot of women in Montenegro don't want to play that game anymore, so the family structure is changing and the 'need' for sons is reducing."-- Demographer Christophe Guilmoto
Moreover, he says, Montenegro is "understudied and the only Slavic country where sex-selective abortions can be evidenced."
Whatever the precise scale of the sex-selective-abortion problem, there are signs that the needle in Montenegro has been nudged slightly closer to the "natural" sex ratio at birth.
But progress has been herky-jerky, at best.
In 2017, the Podgorica-based Women's Rights Center launched a public-awareness campaign and petition drive called Unwanted, in an effort to get the government to more aggressively limit the abuse of prenatal tests and curb sex-selective abortion.
In it, the organizers challenged "negative patriarchal values" and primogeniture, while highlighting the reluctance of women to talk openly about their experiences.
A World Bank chart on cumulative sex ratios at birth shows a deceptively steady closing of the gap between male and female births in Montenegro through 2019.
But a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) table based on official Montenegrin data showed a gap of nearly 110 boys to 100 girls in 2019, as bad as it's been for decades.
The national statistical agency, Monstat, put the figure for 2020 at 108 boys for every 100 girls.
The apparent contradiction is due in part to the statistical quirks of such a small country, with ratios fluctuating wildly during the past decade based on differences of just a few hundred births per year.
The decade's low of just 104 boys for every 100 girls, registered in 2016, for instance, is based on 3,850 boys and 3,719 girls being born. The decade's high, of over 110 boys for every 100 girls, is based on a total of 3,947 newborn boys and 3,582 newborn girls in 2014.
But that speaks to the scale of the problem in Montenegro, not its nature, demographers caution.
"That's why this issue has been somehow ignored or swept under the carpet" by multiple governments in Podgorica, according to Guilmoto, who has worked with the UNFPA. "Because they say, 'See, this year again it's normal.'"
A Pandora's Box
Guilmoto says the bans and criminalization of the practice "is a necessary strategy, but it's not necessarily effective."
Governments must "take a stand and tell doctors that what they're doing is against the law," he says.
But he also cites the ease with which women can go to one place for testing that includes identifying the sex of a fetus, then turn elsewhere for an abortion.
He acknowledges that Montenegro's imbalance has been improving over the past decade and "maybe in 15 or 20 years, the problem will be solved." After all, he says, "The idea of having too many sons is OK on paper, but it's not sustainable."
Montenegro's Education Ministry reported that there were 35,719 boys and just 32,787 girls enrolled in the country's primary schools in 2020.
Guilmoto cites the effects of too many males on things like matchmaking, employment, and even migration. He also says women play an increasingly important role in many aspects of Montenegrin society, giving them more of a say in the family structure.
"A lot of women in Montenegro don't want to play that game anymore," Guilmoto says, "so the family structure is changing and the 'need' for sons is reducing."
But he also doesn't discount the family and "neighborhood" pushback that such women continue to face.
Zenovich stresses that she rejects "stereotypes about Montenegro and Montenegrins."
"I think that the situation in Montenegro is changing," Zenovich says. "Some families do not have a traditional patriarchal preference for babies assigned male at birth, nor do they practice traditional inheritance practices."
That points to more women owning land, businesses, and inheriting family property, and says more work in that direction "would be a wonderful place to start to redress the gendered power dynamic of ownership."
In that sense, Ivanovic's comments in parliament last month hinted at the limits of bans to address Montenegro's stubborn sex imbalance, as well as the Pandora's box of societal tensions that underlies it.
"It is very problematic as it opens many uneasy issues that Montenegrin society is facing nowadays," Kiscenko says. "It is not only about prenatal discrimination and gender inequality in Montenegro, but also ethics, the usage of modern medical technologies, responsibility of doctors and state institutions."