Brave Sisters Tackle Croatia’s Growing Stigma Over Abortion

As women in Croatia encounter even greater difficulties in obtaining access to terminations of pregnancy, feminists are launching a new project to help them exercise what often seems a disappearing right.

Women’s rights activists in Croatia have been warning for years that, while legal, abortion is becoming less and less available in the mainly Catholic country. “The opponents of abortion will stop at nothing,” Nada Peratovic, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, told BIRN. “Social stigma often prevents a woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy from finding support in her immediate community,” she explained. But societal disapproval is not the only problem. According to her, the biggest obstacle to women exercising their right to abortion is the conscientious objection in the gynecological profession, which has been allowed since 2003.

That is why Peratovic and an NGO, the Center for Civil Courage, have launched a new project. Called “Hrabre sestre” (Brave Sisters), its aim is to establish “a network of women in Croatia who will provide support to women who want an abortion”. Over 80 women from all parts of Croatia, some from abroad, have already expressed a wish to participate in the project. “A huge number of women who have not been activists so far have reached out to us, and we are especially happy about that. Despite all the uncertainties, they have decided to take a step out of their own comfort zone and anonymity,” Peratovic said. 

Women who need the support of the Brave Sisters will be able to get it next year when the project starts to operate. Until then, Peratovic said, the group is collecting applications, selecting future volunteers, and training them in how to give support to women in need.

“It is our responsibility to provide an atmosphere of security and respect for the women who turn to us for support,” she said, adding that Brave Sisters will offer both psychological and moral support for women who want an abortion, accompany them to hospital for examinations and conversations with doctors, and during the procedure itself.

“Many Croatian women are forced to have unregistered terminations in private clinics, even in private apartments, or travel to Slovenia,” Peratovic said, adding that it is likely happening because women are deterred by the social stigma at home and are “blocked” by doctors who refuse to perform abortions in public hospitals “on the grounds of their faith”, invoking the conscientious objection clause. “The procedure itself, the travel, and the time it takes to find a hospital that will perform the abortions further burden their [the women’s’] budget,” Peratovic said. “What remains [after] is to pass a row of prayers in front of hospitals and exposure to numerous posters and brochures full of myths and prejudices about abortion,” she continued.

Anti-abortion movement

In Croatia, anti-abortion movement members routinely gather for prayer vigils outside hospitals. The best-known group is the 40 Days for Life initiative, which is part of a worldwide network bringing together anti-abortion Christians who meet in front of health centers and pray to stop terminations. Its last campaign in Croatia ran from September 23 to November 1 in 34 towns and cities.

According to an interactive map created last year, based on the findings of two journalists, Danka Derifaj and Masenjka Bacic, 186 of 322 specialist doctors in 27 public hospitals across Croatia where abortions are performed refuse to conduct them on the basis of conscientious objection. Peratovic says a woman “will be lucky if she is not assigned to a doctor who will invoke conscientious objection in his/her religious zeal, or will determinedly try to dissuade her from terminating the pregnancy. “If she survives the procedure without a lot of pain, she can be considered lucky,” she continued.

Instead of the requested information about abortion, women are often offered alternative solutions, such as counseling, or even help in raising a future child. “If she searches for information on the Internet, the first website that will pop up will be a page called ‘Abortion Clinic’. In fact, this page not only deters women from abortion but also scares them with unscientific claims, such as the one that there is a so-called ‘post-abortion syndrome,’” Peratovic recalled. She calls this claim, that abortion negatively affects women’s mental health, “a new strategy by anti-choice activists”. On social media, she added, women seeking information will often also be exposed to “the toxic rage of abortion opponents”.

In March 2017 a Croatian Constitutional Court ruling obliged the country’s parliament to pass a new abortion law within two years, noting that it was not possible to ban terminations. However, “parliament did not respect that decision and that is not a good message. In this case, we have no instruments to force parliament [to pass a law],” Miroslav Separovic, president of the Constitutional Court, told N1 television last month. Separovic said that any new law must not be more restrictive than the existing one, dating from 1978, but added that some “preventive-educational measures” could be prescribed. Women’s rights activists, on the other hand, do not want any further restrictions, or the inclusion of mandatory pre-abortion counseling, and believe that abortion should be free of charge.

“Croatia suffers from a chronic absence of compulsory scientifically based sex education, it leaves sex education to Catholic Church, which opposes condoms and other contraceptives, and promotes unscientific ideas about the harmfulness of abortion,” Peratovic said. “The state [also] does not act against the arbitrariness of certain pharmacists and doctors who refuse to give contraceptives to women, while at the same time there is a growing poverty among women,” she continued.

With the Brave Sisters, the “feminist struggle for women’s reproductive rights in Croatia has taken on a new, more comprehensive form where we spin webs of solidary”, Peratovic said, the fight for women’s rights must continue, she added. “We must not neglect the loud, and no less important, political advocacy of the right to safe, free, and legal abortion,” she said. “Women are not incubators”, but “thinking human beings”, she said. “Their body belongs to them, to no one else,” she concluded.