Abortion is performed at the request of the woman until the tenth week of pregnancy in Serbia. After that, the decision to terminate the pregnancy is made by a doctor's council, or the ethics commission, if it is an advanced pregnancy. There is no upper gestational limit specified if the abortion is the result of sexual abuse or incest, nor if there are fetal impairments or if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Abortions are performed in all state gynecological and obstetric clinics in Serbia. Healthcare workers can claim conscientious objection but must then refer the woman to another abortion provider. Conscientious objectors cannot utilize the same claim to refuse the provision of emergency medical assistance. The doctor who performs the abortion should be specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Although they are obliged to suggest other options to the woman who wants to terminate the pregnancy, they do not have the right to put pressure on them to give up abortion. The OB-GYN should perform the procedure using modern medical means and techniques.
The abortion rate has historically been quite high in Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries. Abortion has a long history of being the preferred birth control amongst Serbian women rather than the use of the IUD, condoms and the common birth control pill due to several reasons. Abortion legislation was liberalized before contraceptives became readily available. Moreover, other obstacles include resistance amongst women, men and healthcare providers, and lack of sexual education.
The earliest recorded data on abortion legislation in Serbia refers to the second half of the 19th century. Here, it is indicated that abortion was treated as a criminal act, which entailed punishment, both for the woman who decided to terminate the pregnancy and for the executor. The same sources cite the complications post-abortion as the reason for it being criminalized. Moreover, the influence of the church and the official prenatal policy influenced this legislation. Despite the prohibition, women underwent abortions performed by unprofessional providers, which often had various consequences for their health, including death.
1918-1941 Serbia as part of the Yugoslav Kingdom:
In 1929, all countries in the Kingdom allowed abortion for medical reasons and when a woman’s life was in danger, with the approval of a special commission. Additionally, a ban on the sale of abortion devices was introduced, and the risk of 3 to 5 years of imprisonment for all people involved. However, abortion was legalized in the mid-1930s at a congress of Yugoslav doctors in Belgrade.
1945-1992 The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia:
After the Second World War, the Socialist Republic was formed. A central pillar of the republic was the political equality of women and men, and along with a string of other acquired rights, women acquired the right to abortion.
In 1952, a decree was passed, which enabled abortion for medical and socio-economic reasons. Requests for abortion were approved by special commissions consisting of gynecologists, internists and social workers. The criteria for "socio-economic reasons" were not clearly defined and a large number of applications were rejected. It affected the increase of illegal abortions, performed by unskilled people in non-medical conditions. In order to reduce mortality caused by this practice and women's emancipation programs, the abortion law was gradually liberalized between 1950 and 1970. This enabled abortion at the request of the woman up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. In 1974, Yugoslavia became one of only three countries in the world that included reproductive rights in the federal Constitution. With the rise of the feminist movement in Yugoslavia in the late 1970s, the idea of abortion as an essential (reproductive) right of women was further strengthened. Also, the concept of free parenthood and family planning, in addition to the availability of abortion, began to include the possibility of preventing conception and access to most modern medical contraceptives. The contraceptive pill was introduced in Yugoslavia in 1964, and the intrauterine device (IUD) in 1967. Chemical contraceptives and condoms were also available on the market. However, neither sex education, nor use of contraception, were systematically developed in Yugoslavia.
1992-today Republic of Serbia:
After the Yugoslav war that ravaged the region and Serbia became an independent country, the Serbian society was gripped by the process of retraditionalization. Here, the Serbian Orthodox Church regained its importance, with a significant role in politics and social morality. This has been largely reflected in women's human rights and especially abortion. Some think that challenging these rights is one of the new strongholds of the church. In the 1990s, Serbia reintroduced the practice from the two world wars to award fertile mothers with special awards for giving birth to several children and serving the nation. However, the church stopped this practice after furiously observing low numbers: "Serbian women are giving birth less and less, and Serbs are going to the army less and less".
Although the right to abortion is guaranteed by law in Serbia, theoreticians and activists in the field of women's rights certainly have a significant task not only in responding to any attempt to endanger it, but also in the fight to improve the conditions for how it is performed.
In 2016 and 2017, there were talks about including wide range-focused sex education as part of the curriculum for Serbian high school students. About this initiative, Minister without Portfolio Slavica Đukić Dejanović said: «The subject would be valuable, and would serve as the best measure of prevention of unwanted pregnancy, which in our country is a huge problem among young people». However, as of 2022, it appears that sex education measures have not been implemented in schools; sex education seems to have disappeared from the public discourse.
Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
Information collected by the Women's Museum in Fürth, Germany
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