Legal, but... abortion access under threat in Catholic Croatia
On paper, abortion has been legal in Croatia for decades.
But in practice, it is becoming less available in the largely Catholic country where religious pressure is pushing doctors increasingly to refuse abortions on moral grounds.
"Why are gynaecologists obliged to do abortions? I don't really see a connection," said Boris Ujevic, a doctor at Zagreb's public Holy Spirit Hospital, when asked why he does not offer the procedure.
"For me, it's first a moral issue," added Ujevic, who describes his choice as a human right.
All his colleagues at the hospital also refuse to perform abortions, which wasn't the case when he first qualified as a gynaecologist more than 20 years ago.
But now, these refuseniks constitute the majority in Croatia, where some 60 percent of gynaecologists at public hospitals do not offer abortions on grounds of "conscientious objection", according to a survey conducted last month by RTL television.
Under a 1978 law, passed when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, abortion remains legal up to the 10th week of pregnancy.
But since the Balkan state won independence in 1991, the Catholic Church—which was forced to keep a low-profile under communism—has sought to reclaim its leading role as a moral force and guardian of national identity in Croatia.
Since then a proliferation of religious groups, plus allies among conservative politicians, have been calling for an all-out abortion ban.
'Fewer abortions, more babies'
Though they have not yet managed to achieve their aim, anti-abortion campaigners won a key victory in 2003 when doctors were given the right to refuse on grounds of "conscious objection".
And after Croatia's top court ruled that the abortion law was outdated, pro-abortion campaigners fear there may be even more restrictions put in place as the conservative-dominated parliament moves to update the legislation.
According to Health Minister Milan Kujundzic, the goal is clear: "That we have fewer abortions and more newborn children."
For Sanja Cesar, an activist with the rights group CESI, the minister's comments suggest that no efforts will be spared to ensure women who fall pregnant end up giving birth.
That, in turn, means that accessing abortion services is likely "to become more difficult, through (mandatory) waiting periods, biased counselling and also support to gynaecologists who refuse to provide the procedure," she said.
'58 lives saved'
In recent years, religious groups with an anti-abortion agenda have become increasingly prominent, staging the annual "March for Life" rallies which have drawn thousands onto the streets as well as holding candlelit prayer vigils outside hospitals.
"In some Croatian hospitals, the number of abortions has fallen more than 50 percent during our vigils," said Ante Caljkusic, who leads the Croatian chapter of "40 Days for Life", an anti-abortion movement that began in Texas in 2004.
"We know concretely that we saved the lives of 58 children," he told AFP.
The Croatian chapter opened in 2014 and has since spread to 29 towns with some 10,000 participants praying in front of hospitals for 40 days, twice a year, he added.
The aim, he says, is to provide "moral, spiritual and material help to mothers and fathers".
But not everyone is happy about the vigils.
"It's not ethical for anyone to decide on anybody else's... body and life, it's not natural and it's not justified by any religion or philosophy," said Iva Anzulovic, a Croatian journalist who had an abortion in 2006.
She had an eight-month-old baby at the time and did not feel prepared to care for another infant.
"At the time, you could go to any hospital" for the procedure, the 43-year-old told AFP.
That's no longer the case, with five out of the 27 public hospitals not providing any abortions at all, the RTL survey showed.
Under Croatian law, only public hospitals are allowed to carry out the procedure, with the exception of one private clinic.
Of those that do provide abortion access, only three hospitals offer nonsurgical abortions, an option considered safe by medical experts that terminates pregnancies through pills.
Going underground or abroad
For women looking for guidance online, a Google search on where to have an abortion in Croatia comes up with one top result: "Clinic for Abortion".
But rather than offering information on where to go, it shows a graphic video of a termination procedure, warning that the possible side effects include breast cancer, sexual dysfunction and even alcoholism.
Government figures suggest that such campaigning has had an impact, with the number of abortions sharply declining since the 1990s.
In 1993, doctors performed more than 25,000 abortions.
By 2017, the number had fallen to 2,416.
But experts say the statistics do not tell the whole story.
"If the number is dropping, (abortion) is either becoming illegal or patients are going abroad," said Zagreb-based gynaecologist Jasenka Grujic, a prominent voice for reproductive rights.
Many activists believe proper sex education and prevention are as important as keeping the right to abortion open.
But proposed sex education classes in public schools were suspended by Croatia's top court in 2013 following fierce opposition by conservative groups.
"We cannot allow theologists or nuns to talk about sexual education," Grujic said.
"It is ridiculous."
© 2019 AFP