CORRECTION! – Yugoslavia pioneered abortion rights in their constitution long before France

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“The inclusion of women’s right to abortion in the constitution of France is significant and welcome – but it’s not not the first…

“The recent decision of the French parliament to include the right to abortion in the constitution has been met with emotion by women and feminist activists. Although France legalised abortion back in 1975, it was believed that a constitutional provision would make this right irreversible. It was even called a “revolutionary move”, with France being hailed as the “first country in the world to enshrine the right to abortion in its constitution”, thus becoming a “pioneer in guaranteeing freedoms related to abortion”.

“In the current era, the decision of the French parliament is undoubtedly significant. It is mentioned that it is a reaction to the 2022 decision of the United States Supreme Court, which overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling, which had guaranteed the right to abortion for all women up to the 24th week of pregnancy since 1973. Following this, several federal states either banned or significantly restricted access to abortion. This served as a reminder to us all that, once achieved, women’s rights (in any area) are not inviolable and irreversible….

“But let’s return to the comment about France being the “first country in the world” to enshrine this right in its constitution – because we live in a country, the successor to the former SFR Yugoslavia, which had this right in its Constitution as early as 1974. Further back in the history of the former state, a proposal to legalise abortion (for non-medical reasons) appeared in 1935 at the 17th Congress of Yugoslav Physicians due to the large number of illegal abortions, untrained perpetrators and unsanitary conditions leading to a significant number of health complications and fatalities. This was strongly opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, and thus the proposal was not adopted.

“The Constitution of the SFR Yugoslavia of 1974 stated: ‘It is the right of the human being to freely decide on the birth of children. This right can only be restricted for the protection of health.’ Serbia retained this right in its 2006 Constitution, which stated: “Everyone has the right to freely decide on the birth of children,” although a year earlier, in the new Family Law, the provision reads: ‘A woman freely decides on childbirth.’ Are the differences in linguistic formulations important to us? Judging by the current organised attack on the provision regarding gender-sensitive language in the Law on Gender Equality, the differences are not insignificant. Although we certainly consider women to be human beings, it is not entirely clear who “everyone” is who can freely decide on childbirth – if not exclusively women.

“In this sense, the provision in the French constitution is more precise, as it clearly guarantees “the freedom of women to resort to abortion”. It is important also because laws regulating abortion can change in both directions, towards liberalisation or towards significant reduction and restriction of rights. Thus, despite progress in the accessibility of abortion in certain European countries (between the 18th and 24th weeks in the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Iceland), the referendum in Ireland, lifting its ban, positive changes in Spain and France, setbacks are also noticeable.

“In Poland, the Constitutional Court in 2020 banned abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother’s life. Abortion remains prohibited in Malta except in cases of endangerment to the mother’s or fetus’s life. In Hungary, where abortion has been legal since 1953, a law in 2022 made access more difficult; women must first listen to ‘the fetal heartbeat’, with mandatory counselling. In Croatia, in some public health institutions, the intervention is not possible because all doctors express conscientious objections, under apparent pressure from the Church and far-right groups to abolish or limit this right.

“Long considered liberal, the Law on Termination of Pregnancy in Serbia guarantees this possibility up to the 10th week at the request of a woman over 16 years of age, and later only in cases where the woman’s life is at risk, if severe physical or mental damage to the child is expected, or if conception occurred through the commission of a criminal offence. Although legal, intervention for non-medical reasons is not covered by mandatory health insurance, limiting its accessibility, especially for poor women. There is manipulation of information about the number of abortions performed, whose trend is decreasing and records about 11,000 annually, while figures of 10 or 20 times higher are discussed, without official confirmation.

“We remember the extraordinary press conference of President Vucic of Serbia in 2018 on measures to increase the birth rate, where he said: “When we talk about abortions, let all women’s rights organisations and others be angry, the procedure must be respected. Among other things, show the mother an ultrasound with her baby’s heartbeat, and let her decide. Then another conversation before the decision….”

“Earlier, the Serbian Orthodox Church began campaigns to ban abortion. At its regular session in 2013, it supported the “initiative of religious doctors” for the state to ban abortion except in cases when it is performed for medical reasons. Women are regularly labelled “child murderers” and the Church also supports other actions, such as protest walks, forums, and conferences on the same topic. It all resembles the situation in Hungary and Croatia!

“At the same time, the state is entirely inactive (despite obligations), so there is no information on whether any measures have been taken from the National Program for Safeguarding and Improving Sexual and Reproductive Health of the Citizens of the Republic of Serbia (2017), although all indicators in this area are unfavourable.

“The program has expired and there is no word of a new one. Neither education on sexual and reproductive health and rights is systematically addressed, although its importance has been recognised in several laws and strategic documents. School is rarely a source of information and knowledge on these topics, which are necessary for children and young people, but proposals for such programs are ignored.

“Therefore, the constitutional amendment in France, although not the “first in the world”, is important for all of us, women and feminist activists. Considering the globally strong movement against women’s rights, it is important for us to collaborate, research, and disseminate information based on data, as opposed to conspiracy theories and prejudices, to remind and demand that states improve laws and fulfil obligations, to be vocal, both on the streets and in parliaments.”

SOURCE: Balkan Insight, by Tanja Ignjatovic, Belgrade BIRN, 8 March 2024. The author is a Serbia women’s rights activist and psychologist at Autonomous Women’s Center, Belgrade. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.