Bos/Hrv/SrpRomânăБългарскиShqipМакедонскиελληνικά 30 Nov 16

Abortion Rights Under Fire in Croatia

Croatian women struggle to exercise their right to abortion, driven into the shadows and illegality by the rise of a hostile conservatism.

Masenjka Bacic BIRN Split, Zagreb, Skopje, Belfast
The Bethlehem Centre for Unborn Life, a shelter for pregnant women near the Croatian coastal city of Split. Photo: Masenjka Bacic

The house stood beneath palm trees, with thick walls and green shutters typical of Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline.

Inside, Meri Bilic, under dyed auburn hair, busied herself in a half-installed kitchen amid colourful piles of children’s toys and clothes.

Bilic, 49, was overseeing the renovation of the house for its mission as the Bethlehem Centre for Unborn Life, a refuge for pregnant women driven by family or financial circumstances to consider aborting.

In exchange for keeping the child, the centre will give them free board and lodging for a year.

A donation from local nuns near the southern port city of Split, the house is the fifth Bethlehem facility in Croatia. It was not hard to find.

Bilic’s mobile phone number is listed among others for Bethlehem houses on the contacts page of a website that appears as the top result in a Google search for ‘klinika za pobacaje’, Croatian for ‘abortion clinic’.

The site, www.klinikazapobacaje.com, masquerades as an advice page offering information on the process and consequences of abortion, but a picture of scissors dripping with blood quickly reveals its true intentions.

Women who abort, it says, risk depression, sexual dysfunction, cancer, drug addiction and suicidal thoughts.

“It was a genius idea,” Bilic said. “The most difficult thing is to get to our ‘users’ because what’s typical for abortion is that every woman wants to do it in secret.”

“Bethlehem,” she said, “is the first line of defence. We are foot soldiers in a war.”

A screenshot of the website Klinika za Pobacaje (Abortion Clinic). Photo: Masenjka Bacic

Bilic is part of a growing movement to end abortion in predominantly Catholic Croatia, a right enshrined in law for decades but increasingly hard to access.

The newest member of the European Union, Croatia has among the lowest rates of abortion in Europe, falling dramatically since the country broke away from socialist Yugoslavia in a 1991-95 war that reawakened a sense of national identity rooted for many Croatians in their Catholic faith.

An investigation for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, however, suggests the official figures do not tell the whole story.

Fearing stigma and blocked by a large number of doctors who refuse to perform abortions in public hospitals on grounds of their faith, many Croatian women are forced to have unregistered, illegal terminations in private clinics.

Those pregnant women who seek out help due to family or financial problems are often directed by the state to Catholic-inspired shelters for women and children, which in Bethlehem’s case mix warnings of damnation with promises of salvation in exhorting them not to abort.

Now, with the rise to power in 2016 of a conservative government, the legal right to choose to have an abortion is under direct and public threat, echoing developments in Poland in October where only mass protests halted parliament from a near-total ban.

It has parallels, too, with moves in ex-Yugoslav Macedonia to restrict abortion, and in Kosovo, where social stigma is fuelling illegal terminations.

“The position of women in society is … under threat [and] becoming the space where an ideological battle is being fought for the profile of Croatian society,” said Croatian sociologist Valerija Barada.

Shrinking access

In 1980, according to the World Health Organisation, there were 701 abortions per 1,000 live births in Croatia, then part of a socialist Yugoslav federation where abortion rates were generally high.

The figure began falling rapidly with the outbreak of war in 1991 when Croatia declared independence, and by 2014 had dropped to 76 per 1,000 live births, the lowest rate in the Balkan region compared to 156 in Albania, 168 in Montenegro, 195 in Slovenia, 201 in Macedonia, 259 in Serbia, 401 in Romania and 416 in Bulgaria.

A general fall in Eastern Europe is partly explained by the more widespread use of effective contraception. But in Croatia there are other reasons too, rooted in a rise in ‘traditional values’ of family, nation and faith, and in the difficulty women face in exercising their right to abortion.

“We are foot soldiers in a war”

– Meri Bilic, head of a shelter for pregnant women near Split

Abortions in Croatia are allowed at public hospitals and one private hospital in Zagreb. But of 375 doctors certified to do the procedure, just over half refuse to do so on the basis of a 2003 law that introduced the right to conscientious objection, according to a 2014 report by the Ombudsperson for Gender Equality.

Critics say the right is poorly regulated, leaving some areas of the country with barely any doctors prepared to carry out abortions. For example, in Split, Croatia’s second largest city with 180,000 people, just one out of 25 gynaecologists at the state hospital conducts abortions.

The story of Sani, whose surname BIRN has withheld, is not untypical. When she fell pregnant in 2011 at the age of 18, the public hospital in Split told her none of its doctors performed abortions. So Sani called her gynaecologist. “She told me she’s bringing babies onto the earth, not killing them,” she said.

Finally, Sani told the parents of her boyfriend, who called a nurse they knew, who arranged the abortion, illegally, with a doctor in a private clinic in a small seaside town nearby.

In Sani’s medical record, the termination is recorded as a miscarriage. She paid 340 euros, more than twice the official average in public hospitals. The most expensive public hospital is in the southern tourist magnet of Dubrovnik, where an abortion costs 405 euros – roughly equivalent to Croatia’s monthly minimum wage.

“A majority of doctors in Croatia will cite conscientious objection in some or other way, but there is one group of them for sure… who won’t do it in hospital for whatever reason, but will do it privately,” said Dr Zdeslav Benzon, a doctor at the Split hospital who refuses to perform abortions.

“Women Must Decide Their Fate”

While attitudes harden against abortion in Croatia, at the other end of the European Union in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are signs they may be softening.

“It’s not ‘will we have a referendum’ but ‘when’,” rights campaigner Ailbhe Smyth told BIRN in Dublin. “There is a momentum for change on the ground.”

Ireland and Northern Ireland, together with Malta and Andorra, have some of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe.

For generations, such restrictions have driven women to cross the water to England or Wales to terminate pregnancies, in a lesson for what may await Croatia if it moves to tighten abortion legislation.

In 2015, the Westminster Department of Health in London carried out 5,190 abortions on women over the previous year with addresses outside of England or Wales, the Belfast Telegraph reported in May 2016.

Sixteen per cent were from Northern Ireland and 66 per cent from the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland has stricter pregnancy termination laws than the rest of the UK, permitting abortion only if the woman’s life is at risk or if continuing the pregnancy may result in serious long-term damage to her physical or mental health.

Women are increasingly turning to abortion pills that can be ordered online. But taking them is illegal.

“I could go on the web and buy them. I could put them here on my desk, but taking them is a crime,” said Breedagh Hughes, director of the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland.

In April, a Belfast woman who bought pills online to end her pregnancy was given a suspended prison sentence. The next month, 71-year-old former social worker Diane King and two other women handed themselves in to police, saying they had broken the law in helping someone to have an abortion by ordering pills online.

At the Belfast Rally for Choice in July, King told BIRN her case was still under investigation. “I would love to go to court,” she said. One woman at the march carried a banner that read “Smash the church, smash the state, women must decide their fate.”

In Ireland, women who abort face up to 14 years in prison. Health workers who assist risk fines of €4,000.

But the mood may be changing, in part perhaps because of the damage done to the reputation of the Catholic Church by sexual abuse scandals and an investigation into the treatment of unmarried mothers and their babies in Catholic-run homes. In 2014 it emerged that almost 800 infants were buried in unmarked graves in the grounds of one such home in County Galway.

Abortion rights activists have been spurred by an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum in 2015 to allow same-sex marriage.

In February 2016, Amnesty International published a poll in which 87 per cent of respondents in Ireland said they favoured expanding access to abortion. Seventy-two per cent said it should be decriminalised. “Huge progress,” said Smyth, “but it is slow.”


The hidden abortions almost certainly account for the fact that, while the number of legally induced abortions has fallen rapidly, the proportion of terminations registered as occurring for ‘medical reasons’ more than doubled from 21 to 48 per cent between 1998 and 2014, according to state statistics.

“A large number of abortions are being registered as having medical reasons,” said sociologist Barada.

“In the context of such a conservative public discourse, to carry that stigma as the one who openly does abortions, you are the power of evil.”

Likewise for a pregnant woman, Barada said: “It is not easy to go to the hospital and have an abortion.”
That was underscored in October, when Catholic anti-abortion activists of the 40 Days for Life group published on Facebook a call to prayer outside a hospital in the eastern town of Vukovar the following day, having learned that a woman was due to have an abortion there.

The hospital ordered an internal investigation and the State Attorney’s Office ordered its own probe amid uproar among rights groups over how confidential medical details were leaked.

Taking inspiration from Texas, the hospital prayers are now held in 24 cities across Croatia. They began in 2013. That year, prominent US anti-abortion activists Lila Rose and Judith Reisman held a series of lectures in Croatia.

Reisman spoke as a guest of the medical schools in Zagreb and Split. A group called Vigilare was one of the organisers. Vigilare’s logo features on the Abortion Clinic website that directs women to the Bethlehem houses, though the group declined to answer questions from BIRN regarding its involvement with the site.

Catholic clergyman Pater Marko Glogovic opened the first Bethlehem house in 2010 in the town of Karlovac. The organisation now offers accommodation for up to one year for 19 women and their children at any one time.

Glogovic told BIRN that the Karlovac house alone had provided a roof over the heads of 70 pregnant women since opening, on condition they go through with the birth. The Karlovac house received more than 300,000 euros from unspecified donors over the past three years, according to financial reports filed to the Ministry of Finance.

“In general we are always full, but since mothers sometimes stay only a short time, we can always take in new ones,” Glogovic said by email.

Bilic said she met Glogovic some 11 years ago when she fell pregnant outside of marriage and lost her job as a religious studies teacher. He convinced her not to abort and she joined the cause. Bilic described her approach.

Meri Bilic, head of the Bethlehem Centre for Unborn Life near Split. Photo: Masenjka Bacic

Referrals

“When a woman is in a state where she wants to abort, she is very sensitive,” Bilic said. “I get her tears, and when I get these tears, it is … a foundation where rain has fallen, fertile ground to discuss all options.”

She does not stop there, however.

Shortly before BIRN spoke to Bilic, a women’s rights activist and another woman approached her. One of them pretended to be pregnant and said her boyfriend wanted her to have an abortion. They recorded the conversation and gave a copy to BIRN.

According to the recording, Bilic told the woman pretending to be pregnant that she could stay in the house in Split for five years, far longer than the one year Bethlehem actually allows women to stay, if she agreed to keep the baby.

She urged the woman not to tell her parents she was pregnant and warned that if she aborted she would fall into such a terrible depression that she would be unable to complete her university studies.

“When a mother has an abortion, she becomes a walking crypt, not a crypt but a torture chamber,” Bilic told the woman.

“Come to the house, don’t tell your parents anything. When the time comes that they do see you’re pregnant, when there’s no way back, they will react strongly, like this or like that, you call me,” she said. “I’ll give you a room, you rest and enjoy yourself.”

Bilic later followed up with the woman’s friend, sending her a text message that read: “A nun said she would take the child if necessary. Tell her I am begging her to accept.”

BIRN later asked Bilic about the recording and the text message. Bilic said she had meant that the nun would take in both the women and her child temporarily.

“We haven’t done anything illegal, against anyone,” she said. “We are not crazy, we are not fanatics”.

BIRN also asked Glogovic about Bethlehem’s methods. “Everything is done in complete accordance with the law,” he said by email.

Glogovic also said he had nothing to do with the Abortion Clinic website, but supported its intentions.

“I did not encourage or create, nor am I the editor of this site, but I certainly give them my blessing as they are a symbol of the David versus Goliath fight against lies and violence towards women and children.”

He said the “private person” behind the site had simply copied the Bethlehem contact details from other sites and that Bethlehem’s were not the only numbers listed. “I met the initiator of the site once or twice in my life, and I’ve visited the site perhaps once. But I repeat, they have my blessing and support as they are doing a good deed”.

Silvija Stanic, who runs an organisation called Step by Step that offers counselling and psychological support to young pregnant women, said she did not have any direct experience with Bethlehem but has reservations.

“What I have heard about Bethlehem is that it’s a house for women to give birth in. I can’t be overly happy with that, since what happened to freedom of choice?”

“If the alternative to sleeping under a bridge is an institution where she has a roof over her head, of course it is a rescue. But I wonder, at what price?”

“The separation of religious principles from the state … is extremely important, but it’s not happening in this case. This is experimentation with a person’s life.”

Nevertheless, Bethlehem says it regularly receives referrals from the authorities.

“Doctors and nurses will let us know if a girl needs help,” said Blazenka Bakula, the head of the Bethlehem house in Zagreb. The house she runs, she added, has “wonderful cooperation” with the Centre for Social Welfare, the main state welfare body.

BIRN asked the Ministry of Social Policy and Youth for confirmation of whether social workers directed women to the Bethlehem group and for its assessment of the group’s activities, but a spokeswoman declined to comment.

The authorities have rejected criminal complaints about the Abortion Clinic website. In response to a complaint by the Ombudsperson for Gender Equality, Visnja Ljubicic, the Ministry of the Interior said in early 2016 that it had found no criminal wrongdoing, Ljubicic’s office told BIRN.

Rise of the Right

Croatia’s war for independence in the early nineties inspired what sociologist Barada called the ‘retraditionalisation’ of gender roles, with the man as “warrior” and woman as keeper of family and nation.

As the Catholic Church grew in power after independence, so too did disdain for the socialist, secular past, and its relatively progressive approach to women’s rights.

In the former Yugoslavia, abortion on “socio-medical” grounds was permitted in 1952 and in 1974 the federal constitution declared it a “human right to decide freely on childbirth.” Based on this, Croatia in 1978 passed a comprehensive law on all aspects of fertility regulation, including abortion.

Conservatives today say the 1978 law was adopted under an undemocratic regime and must be changed.

Barada said the issue of abortion “is fertile ground on which to reaffirm and reinforce traditional values and a certain political agenda”.

“If you wish to promote … traditional politics, it is important to choose issues that will easily polarise society, and abortion is one of them. It carries with it a significant stigma.”

Silvija Stanic, head of ‘Step-by-Step’, a support and counselling organisation for young pregnant women. Photo: Masenjka Bacic

Six months after Croatia joined the EU, conservative pressure groups scored their first major victory in December 2013 when an organisation called ‘In The Name of the Family’ forced a referendum on whether to change the constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Some 66 per cent voted ‘Yes’.

The conservative movement has since equipped itself with a cable and internet television channel called Laudato, funded in part by Catholic organisations in the United States and Germany, and with a news portal, narod.hr, that went online in early 2014.

The movement’s rise climaxed with an election in late 2015 that brought to power the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and with it a number of prominent right-wing figures, including Zlatko Hasanbegovic, a former activist of In the Name of the Family.

Croatia’s coalition government collapsed in June 2016 but the HDZ won elections again in September.

“Stop Following Me”

The Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast opened in 2012 as the first private clinic to offer abortions to women in Northern Ireland, within the strict legal framework allowing terminations only to preserve the life of the mother or if the pregnancy poses serious physical or mental health risks.

It is frequently the site of anti-abortion protests. Natalie Biernat volunteers at the clinic, escorting women as they enter and leave:

“There was one time, even after I had been volunteering for quite a while … they (protesters) thought I was a client. So as I left, she (a protester) started to come after me and said, ‘Are you there trying to have an abortion?’ And I just said, ‘Don’t talk to me. Stop following me.’

And she followed me the entire way … over the traffic lights to the station. And she kept saying over and over again, ‘All you’ll ever be is the mother of a dead baby.’ Over and over.

And I was saying to her, ‘Do you feel good about yourself, that you harass women who leave this clinic?’ And she kept saying it. And when she realised that I was not going to give her the answer she just said loudly, ‘I will pray for you’.

In the past they’ve had a little model … a foetus. A little tiny one. And they will follow them (clients) and try to show them. Or when a woman leaves they’ll say … ‘Don’t kill your baby’. Or they will sprinkle holy water on the doorstep.

You get a lot of women who come in and usually they are a bit older … They will say, very, very openly, ‘I never thought I would have an abortion, I don’t agree with abortion.’ I’ll have one woman, two women in the same day saying to me, ‘I don’t agree with abortion.’ Yet they were in the clinic. And one of them said: ‘you know, I would have been like the protesters, against abortion, until this happened to me.’ And then she found herself in a situation where she was pregnant and she couldn’t continue with the pregnancy, for whatever reason.”

And one of them said: ‘you know, I would have been like the protesters, against abortion, until this happened to me.’ And then she found herself in a situation where she was pregnant and she couldn’t continue with the pregnancy, for whatever reason.”


On October 10, the Constitutional Court, under a new president, said it would consider a challenge lodged a quarter of a century ago to the constitutionality of Croatia’s abortion legislation, declaring the country “mature enough” for such a decision.

A ruling is expected by the end of the year.

A day after the Court announcement, the HDZ party said in a statement: “Abortion on demand should not be banned because this unwanted occurrence cannot be reduced by a ban, but through education.” The law, it said, should be “modernised” to include such measures as mandatory counselling and a ban on abortions on grounds of the gender of the child.  

The strategy has echoes elsewhere in the Balkans.

In 2013, Macedonia introduced strict measures including mandatory counselling, the requirement that the woman submit a written request, a three-day waiting period before the abortion can be performed, and heavy fines for doctors who do not strictly follow procedure.

Macedonia is mainly Orthodox Christian, but has a large and growing minority of mainly Muslim Albanians. Backed by the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the right-wing government has campaigned against abortion and in favour of higher birth rates, fearful that the ethnic balance is tipping towards Albanians.

“One of the motives for adopting this law is the salvation of the Macedonian nation and race,” said Macedonian rights activist Igor Jadrovski. Like Croatia, he said, authorities had cited the need to change a law adopted during the Yugoslav era, to bring it up to date. “But it was just a mask,” he said.

Mainly Muslim Kosovo too has echoes of the situation in Croatia, though for different reasons.

There, the stigma surrounding single mothers often drives women to abort, but restrictive laws and fear of being shunned by society mean many do so secretly and illegally in private clinics rather than turn to the one public clinic authorised to carry out the procedure.

Doctors at the public clinic make no secret of their opposition to abortion, and a poster in the room where it is carried out declares the practice “a crime”, BIRN reported in August.

A ‘March for Life’ in Zagreb in May 2016, organised by conservative groups opposed to abortion. Photo: Masenjka Bacic


“Mature enough”

In May, between 5,000 and 10,000 people took part in a rally in Zagreb entitled March for Life, proclaiming the sanctity of the family.

At the head of the march was the conservative movement’s most prominent leader, Zeljka Markic. Next to her was Sanja Oreskovic, the wife of the then prime minister, Tihomir Oreskovic.
“Every reasonable person will choose life over death, and everything else is just nonsense and fear,” Oreskovic told reporters.

It was the first march of its kind in Croatia, and a sign of the times.

“It is about disciplining female sexuality and the female body,” Barada said of the ongoing debate.

In today’s Croatia, “To do an abortion and talk about it in a normal way, to not feel guilt, is not simple.”

Undercover, this reporter called the general public hospital in Split in late June, early July and again in October to enquire about the possibility of having an abortion.

In June, the woman who answered said the only doctor who performed abortions was not at work and said to call again the following week. BIRN received the same answer on the next call.

In October, a woman again answered the phone.

“Abortion?” she asked. “What abortion? Intentional? Who’s going to do that for you here?”

BIRN wrote to hospital director Ivo Juric with questions regarding whether and how abortions are carried out in the hospital. He replied: “All the doctors in the Clinic for Women’s Diseases and Obstetrics work in accordance with the laws and current regulations of the Republic of Croatia.”

Masenjka Bacic is a freelance print and broadcast journalist from Split. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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