// Abortion rights in the former ex-Yugoslavia: abortion as a human right


Traditionally, women have been looked trough and valued by their ability to bear children. Thus, women always wanted to navigate their reproduction in a way and came up with a list of ways to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies. The first use of some creative contraception methods have been discovered in Egypt: a papyrus that dates from 1850 BCE documented descriptions of birth control, the use of honey, acacia leaves, and lint to be placed in a vagina in order to prevent impregnation. Abortion as a form of contraception has been used since ancient times as well: Plato mentions, in his Theaetetus, a midwife’s ability to induce abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Abortion was a method of family planning and women were not ashamed because they made a choice. Luckily, contraceptive methods have progressed since then and today, some women can choose from a variety of options. But,  unwanted pregnancies do happen: due to inability to access contraception, lack of information, non-supportive relationships, misuse of contraception, broken condom etc.

When discussing abortion rights in former Yugoslavia, the legislation was liberalized in 1952 in response to the significant increase in illegal abortions associated with high mortality. The liberalization was directed to facilitate access to legal abortion in order to discourage illegal, clandestine abortions. Federal Constitution of Yugoslavia provides that “it is a human right to decide on the birth of children” under article 191. Eight territorial units of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia adjusted and created their legal frames to coordinate with this article. Between 1977 and 1979, all republics within the Yugoslavia passed laws that directed how, when, where and why is a woman permitted to end her pregnancy. Abortion in Croatia, per instance, is still regulated by the same law that was brought in 1978. Under this law, abortion is permitted upon the tenth week of pregnancy, in hospital units. After the political turmoils in the 1990s and the decomposition of the Yugoslavia, some of the former members of the Republic brought a new set of legal frames for reproductive rights, while other, as stated before, continued with the  use of the existing frames. Slovenia, per instance, made abortion completely legal  upon the tenth week, with no restrictions nor aggravation for women to terminate her pregnancy and it’s free of charge. The Slovenian Constitutional Court passed this decision in December 1991 calling the right to abortion a basic human right. In the same time in Croatia, the law that regulates abortion was brought to Constitutional court and the case has been there since. Proponents are demanding the Court to rule whether the listed law is in accordance with Croatian Constitution related to article 21 that says “Each human being has the right to life.” Now, after 25 years, no decision has been set.

Conservative groups have been trying to downgrade women’s rights in the region since the 1990s.  This new concept puts rights of the fetus in front of women’s rights and is basically putting her in a position of an incubator.  Croatian “pro-life” movement organizes a “Prayer for life” twice time a year. The concept of the event is simple: they stand in front of a number of hospitals that usually provide the terminations of pregnancies upon request, holding signs like “abortion is murder” or “you are worthy in my eyes” and praying for the “life of the unborn”, completely ignoring the fact that they are traumatizing women who came to the maternity ward for all sorts of reasons. Besides praying, the groups try to talk women out of having abortions. Another event that they’ve recently organized is called “Walk for life” which was a trigger for various Croatian feminist groups to come together and organize a protest and state that women in Croatia are not going back to illegal abortions. Besides this very visible actions, anti-choice movement has been working deep in the system by organizing and supporting doctors who are refusing to terminate pregnancies due to the “objection of conscience”, which is semi-regulated by law but should not be tolerated in public hospitals, working closely with right-wing politicians to make it harder for women to access abortion services.

A right to choose is crucial for a woman: she has to be able to make an informed decision when and if to have children. Women’s rights are human rights: by banning her choice, you are renouncing her as a complete human being. Every person has an undeniable right over their own bodies and as such, it is their choice to do with it as they please. This notion is the backbone for every argument related to person’s rights. Abortion supports the right to life: woman’s life, a life of her other children. Furthermore: modern medicine made abortion less dangerous for a woman than giving birth and by bringing fair legal frames we are actively working on decreasing of illegal abortions, which are the real threat for women.  Anti-choice movement argues that fetuses feel pain during abortions: neuroscience claims that in order to feel pain, cortex should be developed and functioning which is not the case when most of the abortions are done.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to highlight one case that emerged recently: during the “Prayers for life”, the neoconservative group managed to talk one woman out of having an abortion. She was aware that her fetus has a rare syndrome and will most likely die soon after he gets born. She gave birth, he died a couple of days after the birth, and they posted on Facebook how it is a wonderful thing that they have managed to talk his mother out of abortion as now they have another advocate in Heaven.

This kind of morbidity is not unknown for the anti-choice movement: in Poland, where one of the most restrictive abortion law is in force, the government, navigated by the Christian church, made it impossible for a woman to have an abortion. The “Family planning” law was enacted in 1993 and allows abortion in three cases: when the pregnancy is hazardous for woman’s health, in a case of fetal abnormalities and when the pregnancy is a result of rape. Due to conscientious objection, stigma and a huge black market of illegal abortions, there are around 150 legal abortions per year in Poland, a country of approx. 19 million women. The estimation is that there are around 100.00 illegal, clandestine and unsafe abortions per year in that country. Accordingly to Guttmacher institute, around 70.000 women per year die due to unsafe abortions in the world.

On the other hand, the anti-choice movement does not do much when it comes to the prevention of unwanted pregnancies: in some areas of Croatia, they are giving lectures to young people on how to use “natural” family planning methods that are highly unreliable. When the writing of the new Curriculum document for the restructure of the school system started, they grouped and fought to exclude any form of meaningful, science-based comprehensive sexuality education from it. The dominant discourse of neo-conservativism and strong church-affiliated groups are banning the implementation of a meaningful education on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Another eyesore for the groups is the “day-after” pill. They are arguing that it is abortive and, as such, must be prohibited and that young girls will become promiscuous because of it. The comprehensive sexuality education is even called “gender ideology” in their circles, which has nothing to do with the sole idea of education children on their health and rights. They have been using the term “gender ideology” to “elaborate” what are the civil society organizations and individuals who are working on implementation of science-based approach to the general public, although it has nothing to do with a single ideology, just with common sense and knowledge.

From all of the above, it is evident that women’s sexual and reproductive rights, as well as the rights of the youth, are being violated in the name of the religion and “morality”. It is extremely important for the governments of the countries in the region that share the same set of problems to change the current situation in accordance with human rights treaty bodies and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and not just on the declarative level: they need to push serious changes in terms of legal frames and their implementation. Committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women concluded in their Observations for Croatia in 2015 that the government must ensure that the exercise of conscientious objection does not impede women’s effective access to reproductive health-care services, especially abortion and post-abortion care and contraceptives. Furthermore, the CEDAW committee urges the government to ensure universal coverage of abortion and modern contraception within the Croatian Health Insurance Fund and to ensure the availability and accessibility of modern forms of contraception and reproductive services to all women, including disadvantaged groups of women. These recommendations are intended for Croatia, but can be observed as general and applicable to both Serbia, Croatia, and other countries in the region that are violating women’s rights to bodily autonomy in such an institutional manner under the patronage of whichever church and religion.