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50 years after former Yugoslavia protected abortion rights, that legacy is under threat

Yugoslavia’s abortion laws stayed intact after Croatia split from the country in 1991, but doctors were granted the right to refuse to perform them in 2003.

Screenshot 2024 03 28 093306ZAGREB: With vigils outside clinics, marches drawing thousands and groups of men kneeling to pray in public squares, religious and neo-conservative groups have been ramping up pressure to ban abortions in staunchly Catholic Croatia.

The fierce debate has fueled divisions in the European Union nation of about 3.9 million people where abortion remains legal but access to the procedure is often denied, sending many women to neighboring Slovenia to end a pregnancy.

The movement is in stark contrast to Croatia’s recent past, when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, a Communist-run country that protected 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 Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. “It is every person’s basic right to decide what they will do with their body.”

The issue was back in focus this month after France inscribed the right to abortion in its constitution and activists in the Balkans recalled that the former Yugoslavia had done so back in 1974.

Tanja Ignjatovic from the Belgrade-based Autonomous Women’s Center in Serbia, another country that was once part of Yugoslavia, noted that women felt abortion rights “belonged to us and could not be brought into question.” But, she added, “we have seen that regression is possible, too.”

After Yugoslavia disintegrated in a series of wars in the 1990s, the new countries that emerged kept the old laws in place. However, the post-Communist revival of nationalist, religious and conservative sentiments have threatened that legacy.

Yugoslavia’s abortion laws stayed intact after Croatia split from the country in 1991, but doctors were granted the right to refuse to perform them in 2003. As a result, many women have traveled to neighboring Slovenia for abortion over the years.

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

A current campaign by a Za Zivot — “for life” — movement in Croatia includes prayers, vigils and lectures “for the salvation of the unborn and a stop to abortions in our nation.”

A men’s organization dubbed Muzevni Budite, or “be masculine,” is behind the prayers in city squares, where they preach the revival of male dominance and traditional gender roles along with a campaign against abortions.

In 2022, the weekslong ordeal of a woman who had been denied an abortion even though her child had serious health problems caused an uproar and triggered protests in Croatia’s liberal community.

Mirela Cavajda was 20 weeks pregnant when doctors informed her that her fetus had a brain tumor and no chance of a normal life. Though the abortion was eventually permitted in Croatia, Cavajde had it performed in Slovenia.

As many as 207 Croatian women traveled to a single border hospital in Slovenia that same year for the procedure, a study by Croatian obstetrician Jasenka Grujić showed.

The percentage of doctors who refuse to perform abortions as conscientious objectors reaches 100% in some Croatian hospitals, the study found. The objectors include not only obstetricians but also anaesthesiologists and other doctors needed for the procedure, Grujic said.

“Croatia’s medical community is deeply divided,” Grujic wrote in the analysis she made available to The Associated Press. “I hope this trend of actual unavailability of abortion will be reversed. That is so dangerous for women’s health and lives.”

Yugoslav physicians first considered legalizing abortion back in 1935, and that became a reality in the 1950s. Pushed forward by a women’s organization born out of World War II, the right to abortion was later included in Yugoslavia’s constitution.

Stating that “it is the right of a human being to freely decide on the birth of children,” Yugoslavia’s constitution did not explicitly guarantee abortion, as France’s does. But it nonetheless gave Yugoslav women easy access to terminate pregnancies in clinics throughout the former six-member federation.

“France’s decision reminded us that we had that right in the 1974 constitution, which means exactly 50 years before France,” Ignjatovic said.

Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Slovenia have included the freedom to choose whether to have children in their constitutions. Bosnia’s women can legally obtain abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, though economic impediments exist in the impoverished, post-war country.

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