In August, Karla, a 37-year-old mother of two, found herself in a worrisome situation. She was pregnant and was struggling to find a licensed clinic to perform a medical abortion in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
According to her doctor she had been one of the small percentage of women for whom the morning-after pill was ineffective. One private clinic told her it could only do a surgical abortion due to the coronavirus pandemic. A public hospital told her doctor its internal politics wouldn’t allow the procedure to be performed.
“It’s a scary feeling, knowing it’s not up to you, that it’s up the clinic to agree,” she recalls, “but I was so determined to get what I needed I knew I was going to get it done.”
For Karla – who wanted to give only her first name – it wasn’t the right time to have a third child, a deeply personal decision which she says was compounded by the pandemic.
Abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy was legalised in 1978 when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia. Since independence in 1991, numerous attempts have been made by the Catholic Church and ultra-conservative groups to change this inherited law.
In 2003 conscientious objection was established in the country, giving doctors the right to refrain from carrying out abortions. It’s estimated 60 per cent of practitioners invoke this right today, meaning more Croatian women must travel to neighbouring countries for support or else undergo illegal abortions.
The clinic that finally admitted Karla for a medical termination delivered her two children. This time it was a completely different experience. In the waiting room heavily pregnant women were seated next to her and she could hear the steady beat of babies’ hearts from nearby ultrasounds. She was the first one in the clinic that day and the last one to be seen.
“The doctor I had for my consultation was respectful but the doctor who administered my pill was really unprofessional and rude towards me. Throughout the whole process she just wanted to be done with me. I could handle it, but I kept thinking about other young women who can’t stand up for themselves,” she says.
The constitutional court reaffirmed the constitutionality of access to abortion in 2017 and tasked parliament with updating the law by spring 2019. This hasn’t happened. The ruling means abortion cannot be outlawed although the revisions could make access even more difficult.
"The government is aware most people here still support a woman's right to choose," says activist Sanja Cesar, "on the other hand, the Catholic Church and their associated organisations have strong influence on our government, so they are afraid to start a public debate on abortion."
About 86 per cent of Croatians define themselves as Catholic yet it’s generally accepted that many do not attend Mass on a regular basis. Nonetheless the anti-abortion movement has become increasingly loud in public discourse.
In the past, the church was the primary creator of the anti-abortion narrative in Croatia. Today several ultra-conservative organisations such as Ordo Iuris, Vigilare and In the Name of the Family are leading the charge. These opaque groups are not only calling for more restrictive laws around women’s reproductive health, but they are also contributing to the growing anti-LGTBQ+ rhetoric sweeping the country.
Stjepo Bartulica, a far-right MP and ardent anti-abortion campaigner, feels people are not waiting for orders from the Vatican. "Before you would expect a bishop in Zagreb to be the first to criticise something the government has done. Now they are more cautious so it's the lay groups who are bolder in action," he told The Irish Times from his office in the Sabor, Croatia's parliament.
The 51-year-old is annoyed that the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government hasn't acted on the issue of abortion and firmly believes there is strong support for more restrictive measures. "This is something that Croatia's democracy has failed to address, we have addressed many other human-rights issues, but abortion is still seen as taboo by our political class," he argues.
The most pressing concern for pro-choice activists is the possibility of mandatory counselling being added to the law, which they argue would allow for more delays. Lana Bobic, a theologian, also believes such a move would be a signal to the country that "women are not capable of making big decisions on their own".
Cesar is concerned it would lead to more women seeking illegal abortions, compromising their health and making it a more unpleasant experience.
Karla’s interactions with the doctor who administered her pill became so unbearable that she stopped going for her check-ups. Instead she went to her private doctor to ensure there were no complications.
“The whole system is structured to make abortion, which is legal, unapproachable,” she says. “It’s not easy from a financial perspective. It’s not easy to find good information online. It’s scary when you’re a woman to know that most of the decisions are made by men and you’re the last one to be consulted. That’s what we need to change.”