Written by Chirine Aboussaad and Charisa Chotoe
ZAGREB, 25 May 2019 – On Saturday 25 May, Election Silence Day, Zagreb was one of three Croatian cities, alongside coastal cities Zadar and Split, to host ‘Hod Za Život’ which translates to Walk for Life; a pro-life march. It was the fourth time that Zagreb hosted the march during which thirteen pro-choice activists were arrested. Croatian cities Osijek and Rijeka hosted similar events a week prior.
Zagreb’s march had approximately five thousand participants in attendance who marched from the central Zrinjevac Square, to the higher up St. Mark’s Square where the attendees gathered. The march was led by young attendees holding up a banner that said “Zaštitimo najugroženiju manjinu u hrvatskoj nerođenu djecu!”, which translates to “We protect the most endangered minority in Croatia: unborn children!”. Promotional material for the march could be found all around one of Zagreb’s most famous spots Ban Jelačić Square which were decorated with big Hod Za Život flags hanging from the lamppost.
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The march was generally peaceful, aside from a group of pro-choice protesters of which thirteen members were arrested after attempting to disturb the march by sitting on the main road. Attendees who made it to the march’s destination, St. Mark’s Square, were entertained by speakers and Marko Perković, the fascist nationalist lead singer of Croatian band Thompson. Both pro-life and pro-choice supporters shared their opinion vocally and through banners with messages ranging from the pro-life side “love life”, to “not your uterus, not your opinion” from the pro-choice supporters.
A group of four students on holiday from South Africa witnessed the march and were shocked by the attitude of the pro-life marchers. Darius says: “I think they’re taking away the rights of someone who didn’t ask for something to happen to them like in the case of rape. Their basic human right to abort a child has been taken away from them.” His friend Donevon adds: “You see women taking away rights from themselves and that’s the saddest thing.” Sibongile, also part of the group of South African students, was shocked by some of the banners she saw during the march: “The most disappointing banner I saw was that a woman’s power is conception, which I feel like is a double standard.” She pauses: “You can’t say a woman’s power starts with conception. Woman’s power is not about conception. You can never be equal if you still say that women must have a baby.” She emphasizes the word ‘must’.
Political scientist and assistant-professor for the Faculty of Political Science at Zagreb University, Višeslav Raos explains heavily Catholic Croatia’s complicated abortion policy: “Freedom of choice in Western Europe and in America was always about making it free, legal and accessible. Here, first of all, it’s not free, it’s not covered by your insurance, you have to pay extra. Although it’s only in public hospitals.” He continues: “It is legal, but is it accessible? No, because in some parts of the countries all the doctors object to it.” He adds that prices for abortion vastly vary, with prices ranging from €200 euros to €500 euros, depending on which hospital treats you. He also mentions the doctor’s right to conscientious objection in regard to performing abortion and the way corruption comes into play: “A lot of doctors will not perform an abortion for because of their conscience, but under the table, they will. You can pay a public doctor extra to treat you privately, although that’s actually illegal.
Raos feels that the Walk for Life is a counter-manifestation against Zagreb’s upcoming Pride march on 8 June: “We always have manifestations and then counter-manifestations. This Walk for Life is sort of a counter-Pride. They try to make it look like Pride, very colourful and beautiful. For years in Croatia, it was always that the more left-wing and progressive NGO’s were always more in the media focus, they were more organized, they were more modern, collaborating with NGO’s from other countries and they attracted all the funding. Government funding, EU-funding and funding from foreign embassies.”
He continues to explain why more conservative events like Hod Za Život are seemingly gaining popularity: “Slowly in recent years, we’ve seen this sort of backlash from the right where they’ve adopted the same tactics. Now we have this dynamic. We had the same people before, but they were just not as organized, now we have organized people on the Christian-right and on the progressive-left and you see a balance.”
The march attendees varied wildly from elderly couples preaching the gospel and talking about entering the kingdom of heaven, to young families talking about protecting life and its value. Perhaps the most fanatical marchers were teenage girls who at their young age already had adamant opinions on abortion. Zagreb native Ana, for example, said the following: “Life starts at conception. Every life is worth living.” She doesn’t believe that it’s a woman’s choice to keep or end an unwanted pregnancy: “It’s a different body. You can’t make a choice for another person. You have different stages of life, you have adults and toddlers, you have a foetus and you have babies, it’s the same thing.”
Despite the increasing attention to the matter, abortion rates in Croatia are on the lower end of the spectrum compared to other countries within the European Union. The Netherlands, for example, has an estimated 152 abortions per 1,000 live births, whereas Croatia only has eighty as researched by the World Health Organization.