Government plans to make abortion less accessible for Spanish women are facing stiff resistance. Critics warn the reform is a throwback to the country’s right-wing dictatorship.
A large banner is being carried by a dozen women through the Malasana district of Madrid. It reads: "Free and accessible abortion," which is what they believe is at stake as they protest, along with thousands of others, against the government's reform of the abortion law.
The February-8 protest was the latest in a series of demonstrations across Spain against the reform. In early February, a so-called "Freedom Train" full of activists travelled from northern Spain to Madrid where they voiced their anger. Meanwhile, campaigners from Femen, the international feminist group, have harangued politicians and senior members of the Catholic Church, who they believe have influenced the reform.
Negative effects on public health
The bill itself seeks to introduce strict conditions for allowing an abortion; namely, if a woman's pregnancy is the result of a rape or if her health is at serious risk. At the moment, under a law introduced by the previous government in 2010, abortions are allowed under any circumstances until the 14th week of pregnancy. The new reform is marginally stricter than the previous one introduced during Spain's fledgling democracy in 1985.
"This puts us behind the rest of Europe, not just in terms of the rights of women with regard to maternity," said Marisa Soleto, who took part in the February-8 demonstration in Madrid. She is a spokeswoman for the organization We Decide, which has been one of the driving forces behind resistance to the law.
"We also believe this reform will have very negative effects on public health in general and the health of women," she added.
The government unveiled the bill just before Christmas, apparently hoping it would have a smooth passage into Congress and then be approved without much resistance.
Tightening up the abortion law was in the governing Popular Party's 2011 election manifesto, and its close association with the Catholic Church is seen as a key factor in the reform's presentation. Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardón has led the reform, describing it as "the most progressive law this government has created." He also said that the reform, contrary to what its critics say, "places us in the vanguard of the 21st century."
In addition to the social opposition on the streets, the reform has been fiercely attacked by most opposition parties in Congress.
"We are not going to stop until the government withdraws its law, which is a measure to please the extreme right," said Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, during a recent congressional debate on the issue.
A recent opinion poll by the company Metroscopia showed that 80 percent of Spaniards oppose the reform.
Rubalcaba spoke on February 11 as part of an attempt by the Socialists to have the law blocked ahead of its final debate this spring. But the Popular Party (PP), which has a substantial majority in Congress, won the vote by 183 votes to 151. Six deputies abstained, in what was a secret ballot due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Signs of dissent
Although the PP has the votes to push the legislation through, there are signs of dissent from within its own ranks. José Antonio Monago, president of the Extremadura region and a senior PP figure, recently said he supports "a reform of the abortion law that is backed by consensus and that connects with society and reflects modern-day Spain."
Even though it remains unclear whether the government will make any changes to the law before its final passage through parliament, opinion is sharply divided in Spanish society over the effect it could have.
Alvaro Gutiérrez, with the organization Catholic Voices, views the changes in the law as merely cosmetic.
"[The reform] is going to change the way [abortion] is called: It’s no longer going to be a 'right,' it’s going to be a 'crime without a consequence' but there’s no practical difference," he said. "It’s just trying to keep the pro-life movement quiet."
Gutiérrez, like many Catholics, believes that allowing abortion under certain circumstances is little better than the free abortion that is currently available. This would explain why support for the law among churchgoers has been lukewarm.
Forced to go abroad
Others insist, however, that if the reform is implemented, it will have a major impact on the 100,000 abortions registered each year in Spain.
Empar Pineda, the director of a private clinic that carries out abortions, has campaigned for Spanish women’s right to abortion since the 1970s. She warns that pregnant women could be forced either to go abroad for terminations or visit unregulated back-street clinics where their health will be at risk. She also believes the reform is reminiscent of the country’s oppressive right-wing dictatorship.
"This reform," she said, "treats women like eternal minors who need to be supervised and protected by others who supposedly have the authority to decide whether they can have an abortion or not."