Croatia anti-abortion march draws 20 000

Zagreb - About 20 000 people hit the streets on Saturday for anti-abortion protests in staunchly Catholic Croatia, whose top court recently issued a landmark ruling rejecting calls to ban the procedure.

The issue is deeply divisive in the European Union nation and rights groups warn that the right to abortion is being threatened by growing pressure from groups backed by the church.

Religious songs

Activists also say large numbers of public hospital doctors invoke a conscientious objection clause in Croatian law to refuse to perform the procedure.

Police said the "March for Life" on Saturday drew about 15 000 people in the capital Zagreb, while according to local media reports 5 000 participants gathered in the country's second-largest city of Split.

"Chose Life" and "Life is always a Gift," read banners carried by the marchers, who sang religious songs and waved Croatian flags.

Their aim, according to the organisers, was to "draw attention to respect of every human life - from conception to natural death".

Nearly 90% of Croatia's population of 4.2 million are Roman Catholics.

The march also drew dozens of counter-protesters, with some hanging a banner in central Zagreb that said,"'March for Life' stamps on women's rights".

Police pushed back and detained about a dozen women's rights activists who tried to block the marchers in the capital.

Current legislation

Under a law dating back to 1978, when Croatia was still part of the communist Yugoslavia, abortion is legal until the 10th week of pregnancy.

In a landmark ruling in March, the country's top court rejected calls to ban abortion.

But the constitutional court also ordered parliament to adopt a new law on abortion regulations within the next two years, ruling that the current legislation was outdated.

Activists warn that it could pave the way for a rather restrictive law, that would make abortion difficult to access.