A Croatian pharmacist's refusal to give a customer birth control on moral grounds deepened concern Friday over threats to reproductive rights in the Catholic country, where many doctors in public hospitals also refuse to perform abortions.
The controversy was ignited last month when a young woman told a local fact-checking website Faktograf that a Zagreb pharmacist refused to give her contraceptive pills prescribed by a gynaecologist, citing a "conscientious objection".
"First gynaecologists, now pharmacists, how far this will go?" the young woman was quoted as saying.
The issue sparked outrage among rights groups, who expressed fears it would deter other young women from seeking medical care.
"Patients should not suffer consequences of pharmacists' personal beliefs," Sanja Cerar from CESI, a women's rights association, told AFP.
"In practice, the so-called conscientious objection can reduce people's rights to health protection and violate women's rights," she added.
Activists have long protested how a "conscientious objection" clause written into Croatian law in 2003 is used to deny women's legal right to abortion, in part due to lobbying by Church-backed groups.
Abortion right was legalized in Croatia during the Yugoslav era.
But nearly 60 per cent of public hospital doctors refuse to perform the procedure by invoking the conscientious objection clause, according to estimates.
While Croatia's Health Minister said pharmacists should not be allowed to cite the clause in their line of work, the country's Chamber of Pharmacists disagreed.
"A pharmacist has the right to a conscientious objection only if not endangering patients health and life", the chamber said in reaction to the recent controversy.
In the past five years prescribed drugs were denied only twice over a conscientious objection, it added.
A survey by Index news portal showed that 88 per cent of more than 33,800 people questioned said pharmacists should not have the right to a consciousness objection.
"Everyone is entitled to a conscientious objection but it should apply only to oneself," commented one internet user.
The debate comes at a time when Croatia is due to review its abortion law at the beginning of 2019.
Nearly 90 per cent of Croatia's 4.2 million population are Roman Catholics and the clergy play a powerful role in society.
The controversy was ignited last month when a young woman told a local fact-checking website that a pharmacist refused to give her contraceptive pills prescribed by a gynaecologist, citing a 'conscientious objection'.