Abortion in Croatia

law and obstacles

On paper, abortion has been legal in Croatia for decades. Yet, in practice, abortion is becoming less available under pressure from the Catholic Church and neoconservative activists.

LAW

Croatia became an independent country in 1991 and, since then, Catholic church-backed conservative groups aspire to curb the right to abortion.

Abortion in Croatia has been regulated since 1952, subject to various restrictions. Under the current law, which has been in force since 1978 and has not changed, abortion can be performed on request up to 10 weeks after conception (it means 12 weeks from the first day of the last menstruation), and then in special circumstances. Past the first 10 weeks, abortions must be approved by a Commission of First Instance, consisting of a gynecologist, another physician, and a social worker or registered nurse. The commission can choose to approve the abortion if it is medically necessary to save the woman’s life or preserve her health, whether during pregnancy or delivery or after delivery; if the child would likely be born with a serious congenital defect; or when the conception results from a criminal act, including rape and incest. The Commission’s decision may be appealed to a Commission of Second Instance, whose decision is final. This procedure does not apply in situations where the woman’s life or health is in immediate danger or the abortion has already started.

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 that they hoped would abolish the abortion law entirety.

In February 2017, the Constitutional Court of Croatia reaffirmed the constitutionality of abortion, rejecting claims made by conservative groups and individuals that allowing women access to abortion on request was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the court’s decision called on Croatia’s Parliament to pass a new abortion law within two years of its ruling. That deadline has been ignored. Probably the new law will continue the old practice based on the annulment of women’s rights instead of ensuring their right to health care. 

In 2019 medical abortion became legal, again granted to women only in some clinics.

 
Picture: our activists standing in front of a “Walk for Life” in 2019.

OBSTACLES

There is a powerful anti-abortion movement in Croatia which uses sophisticated tactics to undermine a woman’s right to make an informed choice about her body. All these groups enjoy the broad support of the country’s powerful Catholic Church, which is against abortion for dogmatical reasons. 

Since 2014 “Walk for Life” rallies are held in Croatia. Paradoxically one of the anti-abortion protesters is also a convicted war criminal. At a number of places in Croatia, groups of hardline Catholics have started performing public prayers in front of clinics where abortions do occur. Intimidations outside of clinics are now combined with aggressive online disinformation campaigns, which spread unscientific claims and lies. For example, the klinikazapobacaje.com is in reality part of a nationwide campaign aimed at discouraging women from terminating their pregnancies. Women who abort, the website claims, risk depression, sexual dysfunction, cancer, drug addiction, and suicidal thoughts.

In Croatia, the biggest obstacle to exercising the right to abortion is the widespread appeal of conscience in gynecology which has been allowed since 2003.

By 2018, 58 percent of health workers in public hospitals where women can request abortions refuse to perform the procedure. Although every clinical center is obliged to assemble a team of doctors that perform abortions since women have a right to access these operations, the head of the Clinic in Zagreb stated that: “it is not fair to overburden the remaining five doctors who perform abortions.” He also said that no administrative measure can overturn the right to conscientious objection. These are the most important hospitals whose staff are also employed at universities, where they are educating new generations of doctors.

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 an abortion when in private practice.  

WOMEN´S REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS UNDER ATTACK

Women’s reproductive rights are exposed to intense economic and ideological pressure. Abortion is not covered by state health insurance. Women in smaller cities and working-class women face even greater obstacles when seeking abortion care. 

Fearing stigma and blocked by a large number of doctors who refuse to perform abortions in public hospitals on the grounds of their faith, many Croatian women are forced to have unregistered terminations in private clinics (even in private apartments) or travel abroad to Slovenia.

Restrictive abortion laws affect also women who carry wanted pregnancies – when the pregnant woman learns about the defect in her 2nd trimester, she must not have her right to terminate the pregnancy questioned as she still knows best how to deal with the difficult choice

Pregnant women who seek help as a result of family or financial problems are often directed by the state to Catholic-run shelters, which can give mixed warnings of damnation with promises of salvation.