Spain's Government Pushes Unpopular Abortion Ban

The Spanish government’s plan to outlaw abortions has set off an angry purple protest movement Andrea Comas/Reuters

Spanish women have lined up outside government offices over the past week, holding forms. They weren’t there to register the ownership of their cars or homes. The women filled in the "goods" field with the words "Mi cuerpo" (“My body”). They were registering their bodies.

The women’s protests continued on Twitter under the hashtag #micuerpoesmio (“My body is mine”). Tens of thousands marched in the capital, Madrid, chanting slogans like “Keep your rosaries out of my ovaries.”

The women were registering their objections to a proposed law that, if passed by the majority-conservative parliament, would ban abortion for most women in Spain.

The law would be among the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and would reverse a four-year-old law, enacted by the previous socialist government, that permits women free access to abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy.

Although over 70 percent of Spain’s population is Roman Catholic, a religion that considers abortion and contraception sinful, opposition to the new law is widespread: 80 percent of Spaniards oppose it, including 50 percent of those who identify as Catholic, according to a poll published in El País, the country’s leading newspaper. Debate over the bill has even caused a rift within the ruling conservative party Partido Popular (PP), which ousted the Socialist party from office in 2011, which has lost support.

Where the socialist government of prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero broadened abortion access and put a limit on the weight awarded to religious teaching in public schools, the PP under Mariano Rajoy has worked to reverse those measures.

The PP has had close ties to the Catholic Church, and the Church appears to be behind the move against abortion. This is not the first time the Church has played a role in introducing unpopular reforms.

In May last year, the PP passed a series of education reforms intended to reduce school dropout rates through more standardized testing and other measures. The reforms would also shift public funds to Catholic centers and single-gender schools, and would put greater emphasis on religious classes in public schools. An El País poll reported that 70 percent disagreed with the religious component of the education measure.

“Under the Franco dictatorship, the state and the Catholic church were together. What we see right now is the reproduction of the dictatorship model,” said Aurélie Vialette, an assistant professor of Iberian studies at Ohio State University. “Politics and religion are again melting together.”

“This [abortion] law is an example of the authoritarian, neo-dictatorial drift of the PP and the rollback of the secular state and advances in civil rights made during the Zapatero period," said Raúl Sánchez Cedillo, a translator and member of the leftist activist think tank Fundación de los Comunes (Foundation of the Commons).

Yet while the government strengthens ties with the church, Spaniards are drifting away from it. Though 76 percent identify as Catholic, 57 percent say they never attend mass.

In 2011, with Spain mired in economic crisis and soaring unemployment, many voted for Mariano Rajoy and the PP in the hope of improving Spain’s economic health. When Rajoy took office, there were 5.27 million unemployed in Spain, with a 23 percent unemployment rate. Three years later, 700,000 more Spaniards are jobless, and the unemployment rate has climbed to 26 percent.

Last month, the Spanish government published a memo indicating that the renewed restriction on abortions, by allowing more births, could boost the country’s economy. Some academics believe the new abortion law stems from anxieties among conservatives about the falling birth rate in Spain, which is currently one of Europe’s lowest, and on the growing unpopularity of conservative ideals in Spanish society.

The PP continues to slide in the polls, and 63 percent say they now have “no faith at all” in the prime minister. The shift in the government’s policies has prompted comparisons in the press to the American tea party.

The abortion bill has not helped improve the PP’s popularity. The new law would prohibit abortion even in the case of fetal abnormality, except in the case of rape or serious risk to the health of the mother.

The latter would be tough to obtain: the woman must find two doctors unaffiliated with her abortion-provider who are willing to swear the fetus poses a threat to the mother’s health. She must also first meet with government social workers to discuss alternatives to abortion, like adoption and fostering, then spend a week "reflecting" on whether to continue to terminate the pregnancy.

Women under 18 would need permission from their parents for an abortion, which, according to Joana Garcia Grenzner, an activist with the Catalunya-based Campanya pel Dret a l’Avortament Lliure i Gratuït (Campaign for the Right To Free Abortion) will impose "serious helplessness" on young women who are "subject to pressure from their families or are living in situations of violence, sexual abuse, or even trafficking."

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who drafted the new anti-abortion bill, calls it a protective measure for women. “What the government understands is that in the dramatic circumstances of an abortion, the woman is not guilty,” he said. “The woman is always the victim.''

Carmen Estébanez Camarena, a feminist activist living in Madrid, called Gallardón’s statement "really patronizing. We do not need that."

“Not only it is obvious that a right is being taking away from us, but we see how the government is treating us as though we were under-age again, needing the approval of so many doctors as if we could not decide by ourselves,” she said.

The Spanish Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics said that the new law would have made illegal 100,000 out of the 118,000 abortions carried out last year and hundreds of gynecologists have warned against the adverse effects of preventing voluntary abortion for women carrying severely malformed fetuses--a restriction that has not been in place in Spain since 1985.

If the law comes into force, activists worry about an uptick in clandestine abortions, which kill 47,000 women a year worldwide, according to the rights group Guttmacher Institute.  

"We will return to the time when the rich would go to London to have an abortion there, while poorer people have to abort here illegally, putting the woman's health in danger," Camarena said. In 1978, when abortions were still illegal in Spain, charter planes took “an average of about 200 women per week and 10,000 women a year” to abortion clinics in London.

Opposition to the proposed law has fueled protests throughout Spain and pictures of women (and some men) dressed in the protest movement’s signature purple are a constant presence in Spanish media. On December 20 2013, the day the draft bill was presented to the Cabinet, protests erupted in over 30 Spanish cities, and last Saturday tens of thousands gathered in Madrid holding signs that read “Free Mothers!” and “We give birth, we decide.”

Rallies against the law have also been staged in Paris, Rome, and Brussels, and a protest is set for this weekend in front of the Spanish consulate in New York City.

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