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Different norms, rules and limitations have always been imposed on the female body. How it should look, behave, or what it may do. Everybody had more right to decide on the female body than those to whom it belongs – women. Over time, women fought for their rights and position but are still forced to fight. To fight to keep what they have already gained. Such as the right to make decisions on their own body. The right to abortion.

Written by: Vanja Stokić; Video: Ajdin Kamber; Photo: Pixabay

Fathers used to dictate who women would marry, husbands what they could do with their bodies and the authorities how their bodies should behave. The female body was for too long reduced to only one function – giving birth.

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“It seems to me that only after gaining the right to decide on her body independently, i.e., the right to abortion, was the female body partially returned to the woman. Only after gaining that right – to decide on her own body – did the female body again become the woman’s property. In some countries, that right is being questioned or completely denied again. The body is an integral part of human beings, and all beings should have the right to do with their body at their will”, says Dragana Dardić of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Banja Luka.

Extreme right-wing movements are becoming stronger worldwide and want to reduce women to the level of the man’s property. Poland has banned abortions, which means women must go to other countries to have the procedures done. Some even die from complications during pregnancy, even though it is an abortion for medically justified reasons. In neighbouring Croatia, doctors invoke conscientious objection, which allows them to refuse to perform abortions on women because it is not in accordance with their beliefs. In the US, the right to abortion has also been restricted.

Although there are still no indications of similar initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have reasons to worry.

“Everything that happens, especially in the region and neighbouring countries, but also in Europe and the world, is reflected in our area. Particularly bearing in mind that the influence of religious communities is getting stronger in our country and that today we are witnessing a kind of institutionalization of religion. We should be careful as we have reasons to worry. Especially because the churches were the leaders of the initiatives for a complete abortion prohibition,” remarks Dragana Dardić.

Dragana Dardić; Photo: Ajdin Kamber

Among other things, public institutions need to adhere to laws in their work and respect the rights of women guaranteed by those laws. Without the interference of traditional and patriarchal norms.

“In BiH, various organizations take occasional actions throughout the country. These actions aim to protect the so-called traditional values and, among other things, advocate limiting or banning the termination of pregnancy. When the last law on conditions and procedures for termination of pregnancy in the Republika Srpska was passed in 2008, there was an initiative to limit women’s right to choose by introducing mandatory partner consent to terminate the pregnancy, but it was not supported by the legislator. Events in the world and the region certainly affect the situation and the views of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina on this issue, so we have reasons to be concerned. Especially since we are a highly patriarchal society in which the socially acceptable roles of women limit their fundamental human rights and freedoms,” says Aleksandra Petrić from the “United Women” Foundation.

Available but under different conditions

Members of the European Parliament voted at the beginning of July this year to amend the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“Everyone has the right to a safe and legal abortion”, the Charter says.

Tomislav Sokol, an HDZ representative from Croatia, was one of those who voted against it. He believes that this promotes the “culture of death”.

Legally guaranteed (by entity Laws on Conditions and Procedures for Termination of Pregnancy), abortion in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not available to everyone under the same conditions. If the abortion is not done for medical reasons, the patient bears the costs of up to  BAM 400.

“Cantonal health insurance institutes in the FBiH, as well as the RS Health Insurance Fund, finance the costs of abortions in medically justified cases through mandatory health insurance funds, but not abortions at the request of the pregnant woman (abortion services are 100% borne by the patient).” Right to Abortion in BiH, published by Sarajevo Open Centre.

Some women in Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot exercise their rights due to lack of money, lack of information and because they have to travel.

“We cannot say abortion is available if it is free of charge only in medically justified cases. This limits a woman’s right to make a decision about this procedure and to receive full medical assistance and healthcare in this regard, as it is not available to all women on an equal basis due to their economic status or the lack of medical institutions that perform procedures in all parts of the country. This is an issue that calls for systemic reform and a more active approach of government institutions in health and social protection at all levels,” says Aleksandra Petrić.

A priest among doctors

Differences in the procedure also exist due to the degree of pregnancy. Women pregnant for no longer than 10 weeks register at the Clinical Center of Banjaluka and submit required medical reports.

“Generally, there is no waiting list, the procedure is completed in a day. In the first place reason for abortion, according to our research, is that the woman does not want pregnancy. There are also social and medical reasons…”, says Dr Vladimir Perendija of the Banja Luka Clinical Centre.

Vladimir Perendija; Photo: Vanja Stokić

After the 10th week of pregnancy, it is required to obtain the consent of the Ethics Committee. In some cases, abortion is performed even after the 20th week. An EC consent is required in such cases as well.

“The Committee members are two specialists in gynaecology and obstetrics, one specialist in neuropsychiatry, a lawyer and a social worker – a total of five members. After 10 weeks, an abortion request is to be submitted within three days, and the abortion is performed within three days. If the first-instance committee approves. If the patient is not satisfied with the decision of the first instance commission, the request is submitted to the second instance committee, which reaches the final decision,” says Dr Perendija.

For eight years, from 2012 to 2020, even a priest was a member of the Ethical Committee. In an (officially) secular state, a priest was appointed to the Ethics Committee and given the power to decide whether a woman can have an abortion.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for clergy to take part in deciding on termination of pregnancy after the legal term. However, the state has already allowed the church to enter formal education through religious education classes and, although this is the optional right of children and their parents, in practice, it has long been evident that there are many irregularities and discrimination against children whose parents are not religious. It is a private matter and the constitutionally protected right of every citizen to practice or not to practice religion. Therefore, it should be a matter of a woman’s privacy to consult with a clergyperson about whether to have an abortion. Including the church in the Ethics Committee of a public health institution means imposing religious attitudes and values with the consent of public institutions that should protect civil rights,” says Aleksandra Petrić.

Dragana Dardić agrees, reminding us that religious communities are automatically against abortion. Moreover, what about women of other religions or atheists?

“We know they adhere to religious dogmas that forbid abortion. Therefore, the presence of a person who is a priori against terminating a new life is disturbing and, I should say, frightening”, says Dragana Dardić.

Foto: Pexels

One of the narratives common to groups advocating to limit or abolish abortion is to shift the blame for the decline in birth rates onto women who have abortions. However, they are not concerned with improving conditions for parents or creating an environment in which parenting will be fully supported by institutions.

“Women are not responsible for the low birth rate. Deciding on their reproductive rights cannot be transferred to the state and institutions. The state must provide conditions in terms of social protection and healthcare and special concern for encouraging and ensuring women employment, as well as social support mechanisms (kindergartens, afterschool care and other benefits). The state also must protect the rights of pregnant women and mothers in terms of labour and employment as priority measures of the pro-natal policy if it wants to be decisive in protecting women’s rights. Visible discrimination and violation of the rights of pregnant women and mothers-to-be based on labour relations is our everyday life. There is no systemic reaction, which indicates that the burden of raising the birth rate is being shifted to women through violating their rights,” notes Aleksandra Petrić.

The ban does not stop them

Limiting or banning abortion does not mean stopping it. On the contrary, it pushes it back to dark, secret rooms where abortions are performed illegally and in life-hazard conditions.

“The availability of safe abortion is directly related to health protection. Numerous studies and official statistics indicate that countries with restrictive laws in this area have more illegal abortions. That endangers women’s lives and often has severe consequences for their health. I believe institutions and health professionals must provide accurate and objective information on this issue to the public. I also think they are insufficiently active in this regard,” says Aleksandra Petrić.

Besides, it is necessary to separate advocacy of abortion and advocacy of the right to safe termination of pregnancy. Activists and the non-governmental sector do not promote abortion or persuade women to perform it. They defend their right to do so if it is their decision. Right to decide on their own body.

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