Croatia is changing from a haven for abortion to a land plagued by Catholic restrictions — and at breakneck speed.
Within socialist Yugoslavia, from 1978 until the 1990s, abortion was integrated into healthcare to a degree enviable in the west. The country’s independent socialist ideology drew from ideas developed within Soviet Communism, all while Yugoslavia stayed independent from Soviet influence. During this period, the Yugoslav government stripped the church of its power and property. Feminism was, to a degree, state policy.
The wars of the 1990s tore Yugoslavia into seven separate countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the (still disputed) territory of Kosovo. Nationalist leaders within these would-be nations exploited ethno-religious differences throughout the wars, with Serbs coming to represent Eastern Orthodoxy, Bosniaks representing Islam, and Croats representing Catholicism. As a result, Croatian national identity has become enmeshed with the Catholic church. The church has regained its power, and then some.
Abortion, while still legally protected as an elective procedure until the tenth week after conception (and in certain cases later), is increasingly threatened by far-right forces aligned with the church. Access under existing laws is limited by gynecologists who now claim “conscientious objection” to the procedure.
Nada Peratović was born in Yugoslavia (now northwestern Bosnia) to an ethnically mixed family. They fled to Croatia in the 1990s and eventually to Switzerland where her father worked as an engineer. In 2011 she formed the Center for Civil Courage, dedicated to promoting feminism and awareness of secularism, human rights, and freedom of belief in Croatia. In 2020, in response to Covid-19 restrictions further limiting abortion access in Croatia, Peratović founded Hrabre Sestre, or Brave Sisters, a support network for women seeking abortions, and a political force combating ascendant fascism.
Brave Sisters is simple enough: a woman in need of an abortion can contact the group on any messaging service and speak directly with a volunteer. Volunteers help pregnant people find abortion providers in Croatia and even assist women who need abortions into their second trimester available in neighboring Slovenia, Austria, or the Netherlands. Brave Sisters will help patients find childcare during or after the procedure, financial assistance for travel, or just provide information and emotional support. According to Peratović, the point is to support women in knowing that “you have the right to think for yourself and about yourself,” she says. “Not to think of the nation or the community or your family or your husband or the priest.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Carol Schaeffer You were born in Banja Luka in Bosnia and were a teenager when the war in Yugoslavia began and the country began to fall apart. How did your own war story fleeing Bosnia impact your politics today?
Nada Peratović You know that Banja Luka is the second largest city in Bosnia after Sarajevo. It was the only city where there was no war. We had no gun fights or shootings or siege or anything. But we had ethnic cleansing. Like all fascism, it happened gradually. I always say it was like Germany in the 1930s. It was not that we had to flee overnight with just two bags. And nevertheless, I say I am also a victim of ethnic cleansing. My father was Serb and my mother was Croatian and I say I am a Bosnian woman — not a Muslim, a Bosniak — but I am a citizen of Bosnia. First we went to Croatia but my father was an engineer and so we eventually went to Switzerland. I saw what nationalism became, and that is why in my Center For Civil Courage it is important to deal with the past. This is why I was a part of the Women’s Court [a 2010 initiative centering women’s testimonies from the war and peace time as proponents of justice]. It is not a formal court, it is an informal court of 200 women’s associations in the Balkans who want to have an expression of a special court where women can tell their stories and where you can really listen to another and admit the trauma [of the war].
CS During the war there was widespread violence against women, especially in Bosnia but also everywhere in the Balkans in the form of rape camps and forced pregnancies. How has this memory affected attitudes towards the right to abortion in Croatia?
NP I am 50 years old, and I am always talking about the war. But the younger people in Brave Sisters are 20, 25 years old. They don’t want to talk about the war. We are more concerned about what we see happening everywhere, danger coming, as it happened in America. We really see the same organizations from America, like the Christian right; the Russian oligarchs and people from Poland [that back anti-abortion campaigns and organizations in Croatia]. We really have the fear that there is a backlash against women’s rights everywhere.
CS How have attitudes towards legal abortion changed since the war in the 1990s?
NP Older feminists say that in 1995, for example, which was still during the war, there were conservative groups talking about abortion. But they were sect-like, cult-like. They were fringe. Whereas feminist groups went to the main park in Croatia with a petition to protect abortion rights and they collected 20,000 signatures. When they asked why people were signing, they answered that it is a woman’s right. And even old Croats who became all religious [after the war], they still have this socialist mentality. Even men from the front who were back for a few days signed the petition.
But now after 30 years of Catholic religion classes where you learn early that masturbation and abortion is a sin — and the state requires no mandatory sexual education — the younger generation is much more conservative than their parents.
CS It was not only legal in Croatia and Yugoslavia to have an abortion, but it was written into the constitution. As far as I know this is unique in the world. Is this a right that is still protected as part of the legacy of the former Yugoslavia?
NP We had this law with a really nice name: Measures of Family Planning. After the war and Croatia’s independence, groups tried to overturn this law. In 2017 there was a referendum that confirmed that the right to have an abortion is legally protected. For now, this gives us hope that there cannot be another [vote that would reverse this]. But again, we saw what happened in America. Maybe in five or 10 years if our Supreme Court becomes more conservative, it could happen.
CS As Franjo Tudjman and the Croatian nationalist parties were coming to power in the 1990s, socialist organizations, including the women’s organizations of the Yugoslav era were being dissolved. And I was told one story by feminist activist Nela Pamukovic that some of these women’s groups occupied the Socialist Youth Center building to establish their women’s shelter. Would you say that some of these direct-action tactics informed your strategy today for protecting abortion rights?
NP We learned from the older feminists and we took some things. Especially from Nela, from whom I learned how to protest, what is important, how to go to the streets.
What is very important for Brave Sisters is that we do not want to be involved with electoral politics at all. We are not part of any political party. The left wants to put the right to abortion back into the constitution. But the problem is, will we succeed in this? What if we do not? I think for us at Brave Sisters, it is more important to make an impact now. Because even if abortion is protected by the constitution, we still have the problem where 60 percent of gynecologists refuse to perform abortion.
CS In Croatia, access to abortion has declined with the rise of the Catholic Church’s power. What are the ways you have responded to the rise of the religious right in particular?
NP We try to put the responsibility on the state. We don’t address the church. The state has the responsibility to protect the citizens and to protect their security. But unfortunately, they don’t do it. The right to secularity is written in the constitution to protect our rights to freedom of and from belief. This is why we encourage people who are not religious to stick to their identity. This is why civil courage is important, to show that people do not need to conform.
CS And Croatia’s national identity, like its ethnic identity, is often tied to Catholicism. What does this mean for women who seek abortions in the country? Is a woman’s national identity questioned, or their ethnic identity questioned, by seeking an abortion? Is this something women struggle with internally?
NP Yes, some women who have seen us have struggled with this. But on the other hand, they are very pragmatic.
We had one woman who was afraid because she knew some of the people who would pray outside of the hospital [where she would go for the abortion]. What would they say if they saw that she was seeking an abortion? But she knew she could not have a fourth child.
One woman said she didn’t know if she would regret an abortion and it was very hard for her to decide to do it. She was in her eighth week, and abortion is legal until 10 weeks, and she wanted an abortion. And then the gynecologists started to show her the monitor, tried to talk her out of it, telling her to take another day, two days, a religious holy day. Don’t decide today, they said. And they postponed and postponed until her tenth week. It was too late for her to get an abortion in Croatia and then we sent her to Amsterdam. She had it in the fourteenth week and she said it was so hard for her. She thought she was selfish.
CS Do you think Croatia can remain a secular country?
NP I really don’t know what will happen. We are really telling people you have the right to fight for your rights. You can’t stay still, especially women. You can’t be unpolitical. I’m not interested in political parties, but politics as a part of your life. This is what I say to men, who are indifferent to feminism. For me it is not a philosophical debate, it is my life.
Croatia is a secular country, even if the vast majority of people say they are Catholics. But we always say, how Catholic would they really be if there were a church tax [similar to other European countries that charge an extra tax for religious-identifying people since religious institutions are in some cases state-subsidized]? It is nice to be a religious person or Catholic in a secular state because you can choose what you want to be and how much [you want to dedicate yourself to religious practice]. I always say, imagine we are in a theocracy, that the rules of the church are the same as the secular law. I remind people that in a secular state, you should be on the side of religious freedom.
CS You’ve grown so much in the last couple years, from just treating a few women to now treating more than 400 patients, and your organization is growing all the time. How are women hearing about Brave Sisters?
NP After two years we are popping up [on Google results] first and then women know to contact us. Some women tell other women about us. And our website is written in simple language.
Also, for a long time it was just my name and face at the front of the organization because I’m in Switzerland. But now the sisters are gaining more courage to be public. We are going into the streets, demonstrating, talking to news organizations. Because we want to de-stigmatize abortion.
As we get bigger, we’re reorganizing ourselves. For example, last year it was one brave sister working for two weeks. Now we have one sister for one week and hopefully soon two sisters for one week. More and more women are calling us for support. Our goal is that every woman in Croatia knows that we exist. They need us, and we try to raise awareness with donations and crowdfunding and so on, but we are limited [by lack of funds].
CS You started Brave Sisters during Covid because abortion was considered non-essential medicine. Meanwhile abortion clinics here in the U.S. are shutting down in the aftermath of Dobbs. How did you begin the process of finding abortion clinics that could actually help women? How did you begin the process of building this network to directly connect women with gynecologists that would help them?
NP First of all, we do not have abortion clinics like in America. We have hospitals that are licensed to allow their gynecologists to provide abortions. [This is a special license in Croatia; not all gynecologists are allowed to provide abortions.] And we started really by calling around. With every woman who we supported, we would learn about the gynecologist and the hospitals available. After three years, I can tell you that abortion is more accessible than we thought it was based on the media. Now we know about providing abortions in Amsterdam, we know about Slovenia. We learned about providers in little towns and cities. And it grows that way.
CS Tell me more about conscientious objection. This is the biggest problem for abortion access in Croatia. For example, I read that in the Croatian city Split, there are only five gynecologists out of 45 that perform abortions. How are you and other activists combatting that issue specifically?
NP Since we provide direct support, we do not send women to [hospitals in] Split. We send them to other hospitals. We also demand of the state that there be enough other hospitals and providers that can meet the demand. The state says that gynecologists have the right to refuse to perform abortions. But is it ethically okay? The patient is more important.
If you have a problem with abortions, don’t be a gynecologist; be a dermatologist or something else. It is not three percent of gynecologists [who don’t perform abortions], it is 60 percent. Imagine that 60 percent of emergency room workers are Jehovah’s Witnesses and not doing transfusions. That would be a big problem. But when it is about women’s rights it doesn’t seem to matter.
CS On a more practical note, are surgical abortions more popular? Or do women that you work with typically prefer pill abortions?
NP Pill abortion is fairly new here, but we have had very good experience with pills, where you can get all the pills at once and then take the first one when you want and then the next one after two days. We stay in communication with women as it is happening and tell them what is normal and what is not. And that is happening more and more. And this is also something that we demand from politicians that every gynecologist — not only those that are in hospitals but also private gynecologists — should have the right to prescribe abortion pills.
CS So, the right to provide abortion pills is not currently legal for gynecologists practicing outside of hospitals?
NP No, it is not legal. And so, changing this would be a good way to overrun the hegemonic anti-abortion attitude in hospitals. Some gynecologists in Split, for example, may not all be anti-abortion, but they are conforming to the hospital policy. You can be doomed to only do abortions and you can’t climb the professional ladder. It would be great if, for example, every gynecologist who wants to prescribe abortion pills has the right to.
CS And what is the distribution of pills like now?
NP Now it is in the licensed hospitals only. We don’t give abortion pills. We take care that we obey the law and the Constitution, but it is also our political message. Our goal is that the women go to the hospitals and demand their rights and that the hospital gets used to that. They have to be professional and take care of their patients and not treat hospitals as their ideological playground.
CS Is direct pill access something you would consider if it came to it? If abortion became inaccessible is that something you would consider doing?
NP If it would be inaccessible or banned, we would probably go underground. We would do it. But for now, it is important not to do it because we have the rights. We have one advantage in Croatia, which is that abortion is legal. Even the Supreme Court said it is constitutional. We only have to justify that this will not change.
CS Poland is of course another country that was once socialist and then made this far-right, especially Catholic turn, especially with regards to abortion. How can Croatia avoid a similar fate?
NP You must understand that their socialism and our socialism are not the same. Their socialism is very connected to Russia, and it was a very oppressive socialism. And so there, the Catholic Church was a vanguard.
But we fight it by being very aware of the politicians we are electing and by presenting our case in the public space, so as not to give everything to the anti-abortionists. We do not align ourselves with specific politicians or parties, but we do raise awareness. There is always this question, should we talk with fascists? Should we give them a power they don’t deserve? I say they already have power with news portals and Catholic television. So, I think it is important that our voices are heard in the public space, that a woman hears that abortion is not murder, that they are not a murderer, that it is not a sin, that it is a medical procedure that is very safe and that they have the right to do it and that it should be protected. Our grandmothers and mothers didn’t talk about abortion like we do today. And that’s why we decided to go more and more public.
CS How can Brave Sisters continue to help women seeking abortion across the Balkans and not just in Croatia? And what are the challenges facing such a project?
NP If we had money, we could do so much. We could do marketing; we could network with other news agencies. We would work in Serbia and Bosnia. We could really pay women to be more active. We’ve also thought about getting a car to make presentations in little villages and places with little access. But the problem is of course you can’t go to the village and then give a lecture about abortion, so it would be something like a festival with something to eat. Or it would be great to have a boat and go from island to island to educate the women. We have many ideas. We are working on reaching deaf women, whose sign language has different grammar from our spoken language, and women with disabilities who have problems reading our texts. So, we are preparing these things. We will see what we are able to do.
Carol Schaeffer is a journalist based between New York and Berlin, where she reports on Europe, threats to democracy, and human rights. She was a 2019-2020 Fulbright Scholar based in Berlin.
Thank you to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – New York Office and the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) for their support of this article.