Abortion Rights Are Threatened 50 Years After Yugoslavia Protected Them


Religious and neo-conservative groups have increased efforts to outlaw abortions in firmly Catholic Croatia, with vigils outside clinics, thousands-strong marches, and groups of men kneeling to pray in public places.

The heated issue has inflamed differences in the European Union nation of over 3.9 million people, where abortion is still legal but access to the operation is frequently refused, forcing many women to go to neighboring Slovenia to end their pregnancy.

The campaign stands in stark contrast to Croatia’s recent history as part of the former Yugoslavia, a Communist-run country that guaranteed abortion rights in its constitution 50 years ago.

“I find it incredible that we are even discussing this in the year 2024,” said Ana Sunic, a mother of two from Croatia’s city, Zagreb. “It is every person’s basic right to decide what they will do with their body.”

The subject resurfaced last month because France included the right to abortion in its constitution, and advocates in the Balkans pointed out that the former Yugoslavia did the same in 1974.

Tanja Ignjatovic of the Belgrade-based Autonomous Women’s Center in Serbia, another former Yugoslav republic, stated that women believed abortion rights “belonged to us and could not be questioned.” However, she continued, “We have seen that regression is possible as well.”

After Yugoslavia collapsed in a series of wars in the 1990s, the new countries that arose upheld the existing laws. However, the post-Communist rise of nationalist, religious, and conservative views has jeopardized this heritage.

Abortion regulations in Yugoslavia remained unchanged when Croatia seceded in 1991, but doctors were allowed the right to deny them in 2003. As a result, many women have flown to neighboring Slovenia for abortions in recent years.

“The gap between laws and practice is huge,” said feminist activist Sanja Sarnavka. “Due to the immense influence by conservative groups and the Catholic church it (abortion) is de facto impossible in many places, or severely restricted.”

In Croatia, the Za Zivot — “for life” — organization is now running a campaign that includes prayers, vigils, and lectures “for the salvation of the unborn and a stop to abortions in our nation.”

The prayers in city squares are organized by Muzevni Budite, or “be masculine,” a men’s organization that preaches the rebirth of male supremacy and traditional gender norms, as well as an anti-abortion campaign.

In 2022, the weeks-long suffering of a mother who was denied an abortion despite her child’s major health concerns sparked outrage and protests in Croatia’s liberal society.

Mirela Cavajda was 20 weeks pregnant when doctors told her that her fetus had a brain tumor and would not live a normal life. Although abortion was later legalized in Croatia, Cavajde had it performed in Slovenia.

According to research conducted by Croatian physician Jasenka Grujić, up to 207 Croatian women underwent the surgery at a single border hospital in Slovenia that year.

According to the report, the rate of doctors who refuse to conduct abortions as conscientious objectors has reached 100% in several Croatian institutions. According to Grujic, the objectors include not just obstetricians but also anesthesiologists and other professionals who are required for the treatment.

“Croatia’s medical community is deeply divided,” Grujic said in an analysis provided to The Associated Press. “I hope that the current trend of true unavailability of abortion will reverse. “That is extremely dangerous to women’s health and lives.”

Yugoslav physicians explored legalizing abortion in 1935, and it became a reality in the 1950s. The right to abortion was eventually enshrined in Yugoslavia’s constitution, thanks to efforts by a women’s movement formed after World War II.

Yugoslavia’s constitution, which states that “it is the right of a human being to freely decide on the birth of children,” does not explicitly guarantee abortion, unlike France’s. Nonetheless, it provided Yugoslav women with easy access to abortions at clinics across the old six-member federation.

“France’s decision reminded us that we had that right in the 1974 constitution, which means exactly 50 years before France,” she remarked. Serbia and Slovenia, for example, have constitutionally protected the right to choose whether or not to have children. Bosnian women can lawfully have abortions throughout the first ten weeks of pregnancy, despite economic constraints in the poor postwar country.

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