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Abortion rights in Croatia: Why we must fight for their preservation

Croatian women have had the right to have an abortion since 1978. But the new government might put this right at risk.

The right to abortion in Croatia was adopted by law in 1978 in the former state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The law survived the collapse of the state – abortions can be performed up to the tenth week from the date of conception.

One of the oldest and vigorous debates in our society is about a woman’s right to abortion. From a position of a pro-choice defender, the worst thing in such discussions is to be drawn into a question about when life begins. It is not important if this is the case by birth or by merging reproductive cells – the focus should be on women’s rights. What is important is that the person who supports this right argues that it is the woman’s decision, the result of a struggle and that abortion should be legal, accessible and free. Abortion in Croatia hardly fulfills all of these three conditions.

Inhibition does not solve the problem

“My uterus, my ovaries“: Poster of the Women's Network Croatia

“My uterus, my ovaries“: Poster of the Women’s Network Croatia

Abortion is one of the fundamental human rights of women as it is about women’s autonomy over their own bodies and the right to choose and control their sexual and reproductive rights. If an abortion is prohibited, restricted or completely taken away from women, we must understand that we will not eliminate abortions. Inhibition of legal abortion services in health institutions does not solve the problem. It only moves the problem from the public to the private spectrum – more specifically from the field of legal to illegal. History has taught us (or at least some of us) that the prohibition of abortion does not prevent or reduce the total number of performed abortions. An equal or greater number of abortions happen behind “closed” doors.

It is hardly understandable for a country which is characterized by democratic principles, or at least is trying to be, that it attempts to limit abortions or supports groups that want to abolish the right to abortion. It has been said that often it is more difficult to fight for the retention of existing rights than to fight for new ones – this statement perfectly illustrates the struggle in Croatia in recent years. We are facing constant right-wing, conservative and/ or religious groups that in a so called ‘peaceful’ way want to prohibit women and girls’ right to abortion. We can say that we are in a maelstrom.

So-called “Pro-life” activism is growing in Croatia. Since 2014, volunteers of an initiative called 40 Days for Life are praying in front of hospitals across the country against abortions taking place. There are a range of other conservative organisations and initiatives such as Clinic for Abortion, Croatian Association for Life CRO-VITA, Vigilare, In the Name of Family and “I was an Embryo“. As a result, hostility towards the right to access abortion is growing. This problem is unfortunately not unique to Croatia, as demonstrated by the expansion of similar conservative initiatives throughout Europe.

Arguments against abortion in Croatia

Arguments against abortion are numerous: the right to life, concerns about a decreased birth rate, and the fact that a high number of young people emigrate from the country every year in search of work abroad due to economic crisis in Croatia. The last-mentioned developments decrease the number of citizens, so „Pro-life“ activist argue that abortions should be stopped, which, acoording to them, will in turn increase the Croatian population. Of course we should strive to increase the birth rate and retain young people in Croatia, but prohibiting abortion will not achieve this. What should be done is to create jobs and provide economic and social stability for young people.

Another argument is the idea that abortion is used as a contraceptive, and that it is most often performed by young women. However, 93% of women in Croatia who abort are older than 20 years, and 78% are already mothers. To have an abortion or to carry to term should be an informed decision, based on emotional stability and in full knowledge of the available options and consequences.

During 2013, the total number of reported abortions was 8,922 (where by definition, each pregnancy that does not end in childbirth is considered as interruption of pregnancy). There were only 3,816 abortions at the request of women which represents 35% of the total reported abortions. The remaining 65% are preformed due to malformations in the offspring and so on.

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“Not going back to an illegal abortion“: Public Action of the Women’s Network Croatia

The lack of debate on abortion

Even though abortion is legal in Croatia, access to it is sometimes difficult. In some regions, there are no hospitals that are willing to perform abortions as a result of the right to conscientious objection. For some women, the price is simply too high (ranging from approximately 100 euros to 3,000 euros), so many women cannot afford it. Therefore, we need to strive for free abortions in all hospitals and for binding regulations in the cases of conscientious objections to ensure referral to another doctor that will end the pregnancy.

Croatian society is characterised by the absence of public debate and education about responsible sexual behaviour. Lack of systematic education in schools about sexual and reproductive health leads to a general stigma of women who decide to have an abortion. We then find it difficult to accept that abortions in Croatia take place. They are carried out, there are girls and women who decide it is the right thing for them, and that is the reality of the situation. This reality will not go away if we stop talking about it, present false statistics or close our eyes from it.

To counteract the conservative undercurrent, an activist movement made up of many organisations protecting women’s rights has raised to its feet in Croatia, with numerous media appearances, public events and actions for raising public awareness on why the right to abortion is necessary. The ‘Women’s Network Croatia‘ organised a major public protest in front of the Croatian Government Building, under the phrase ‘Not going back to an illegal abortion’ at the end of 2014. The goal of the protest was to highlight the drastic violations of women’s reproductive rights in the licensed public health institutions across the country, as for example in the towns of Knin or Pakrac where patients have to go through a commitee for permission, and the refusal to perform abortions at the request of the patient. The network asked the government to ensure the enforcement of laws and the protection of women from the systematic erosion of their human rights.

Abortion rights in Croatia: Future potential dangers

My body, my choice

“My body, my choice.” The new government might put Croatian women’s abortion rights in danger. Photo credit: edson.ac via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Parliamentary elections were held in late 2015 in which the right-wing coalition won. One of the first thing that the potential future health minister announced is the change of the law which includes the right to abortion. The ‘Women’s Network Croatia’ again reacted and the same action took place in December 2015, again in front of the Croatian Govenment Building. Further efforts are being prepared in order to prevent the erosion of the right to abortion, because in this case it opens up the additional problems, in addition to the existing ones, with which a Croatian woman will face.

So what is the conclusion? The issue of abortion rights is now an open topic in Croatian society. New research on public opinion has been published and the law continues to be protected as a result of women’s organizations who also advocate for improving the availability of abortion in public hospitals. But from a pro-choice position it can be argued that the possibility of prohibition of the right to access abortion is a real threat for Croatian women. It is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body and the erosion or complete withdrawal of the right to abortion violates this. The absence of abortion rights, a direct reflection of patriarchy, deprives women of their autonomy, limits and controls them and makes them incapable of deciding on their own. That is why it is important to respect fundamental women’s human rights and this is why we, as women will always have the strength, the will and the desire to over and over again fight for the preservation of our rights, including the right to abortion.

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