Women in Croatia say enough to conservative obstruction of right to abortion

Women in nine cities in Croatia organized mass protests against denial of abortion care and attempts by conservatives to curb sexual and reproductive health rights

May 16, 2022 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Protesters in Zagreb main square on May 12, 2022.

Thousands of women held protests in cities across Croatia in support of the right to abortion on Thursday, May 12. The protests were spurred by the experience of Mirela Čavajda, a woman who was denied abortion care in several public hospitals although the fetus was diagnosed with a tumor which physicians in Croatia and Slovenia alike agreed would make the chances of survival until birth minimal.

Protestors took to the streets in Zagreb, Split, Rijeka, Osijek, Zadar, Šibenik, Pula, Sisak and on the island of Korčula to say Dosta! (Enough!) to the treatment women have been experiencing in many public health institutions. They denounced conservative trends that have diminished access to abortion care in Croatia since 1990, demanded the resignation of Minister of Health Vili Beroš, and called for reforms of the public health system which would oppose commercialization, safeguarding women’s health and well being.

The right to abortion in Croatia is regulated through a law that was transferred in the local legislation from the Yugoslav period. The law grants the right to abortion until the 10th week of gestation, and in later phases of the pregnancy in extraordinary circumstances – such as the case which provoked the protests.

However, the grounds on which the 1978 law was introduced –  an article of the 1974 Constitution of the SFR of Yugoslavia which stated that “It is a human right freely to decide on family planning”  – was removed from the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia in 1990 due to pressure from the Catholic Church. The removal of family planning as an explicit constitutional category has opened the doors for right-wing organizations to embark on several anti-abortion legislative campaigns, including a 2016 petition to the Constitutional Court which they hoped would abolish the abortion law in entirety.

These groups have helped create a situation where the right to abortion is often contested by conservative political groups and professional associations alike, notably more frequently than, for example, in neighboring Slovenia which held on to the old constitutional grounds.

As a result of conservative pressures, 60% of all gynecologists in Croatia today do not perform abortions on the grounds of what they call conscientious objection. There are so many objectors that some public hospitals do not employ a single physician who would perform the procedure. This is the case, for example, at the city-owned Clinical Hospital Sveti Duh (Holy Spirit) in Zagreb, where more than a third of the overall health capacities of the country are located.

Protest for abortion rights Croatia
Activists holding a banner that reads Health to the people in front of Clinical Hospital Sveti Duh

On the other hand, since local legislation permits dual practice for physicians – allowing them to work in private practices outside regular hours in the public health system – anecdotal evidence shows that many of those who are conscientious objectors in public hospitals are ready to perform abortion when in private practice.  

Women in smaller cities and working class women face even greater obstacles when seeking abortion care. The barriers they face are of a financial nature, as women are charged for accessing abortion. The prices go up to 3000 kunas (USD 415) which, considering that many workers still earn less than 4000 kunas (USD 560) per month, keeps abortion completely out of reach of many women.

The protests were organized in a matter of days, just 48 hours before the anti-abortion manifestation Walk for Life took place in Zagreb. More than 7,000 women who responded to the call for mobilization of Enough! in Zagreb alone showed that they are ready to resist the conservative groups who have been mobilizing over the past decades, and that they would fight to achieve more extensive access to abortion care.

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