Spain's Push for a Tough Abortion Law Brings Protest to Manhattan's Spanish Consulate

Spanish Consulate photo 4
Zoe Schlanger

Several dozen women and a few men gathered outside the Spanish consulate in Manhattan on Saturday, holding wire hangers and chatting merrily despite the driving snow. The group, cordoned off from the rest of East 58th street by a few NYPD barricades, hailed from Spain, several Latin American countries, and various U.S. states. Most had never met.

They chanted slogans like, “My body, my choice,” and “Keep your rosaries out of our ovaries,” phrases that have become familiar in recent months to cities all over Spain. Several women lined up with purple, hand-lettered signs that together read “Free Abortion.” Another sign read, “It’s my vagina, period.” A passing taxi cab honked supportively. Two NYPD officers stood placidly by.

Spanish Consulate photo 3 Zoe Schlanger

They were protesting a reform that would effectively ban abortion in Spain, and which looks very close to becoming law. Across the Atlantic, massive protests against the law have broken out repeatedly in some 30 Spanish cities, as well as in Paris, Rome, and Brussels. Now the protest movement has made its way to New York, organized a few days prior on Facebook by several Spanish women who now live in the city.

For Maria, a 33-year-old who works at Planned Parenthood International and helped organize the protest, the abortion debate unfolding in her home country is particularly salient. In 1976, when abortion was still illegal in Spain, her mother was one of many women of that time who flew to England to obtain an abortion. Ten years ago, Maria, who is originally from Madrid and declined to give her last name, was traveling in Cuba when she and her boyfriend found out she was pregnant. “The condom broke, that was it, and I was 23,” she said. Unprepared to raise a child, she flew to Amsterdam to have an abortion.

Now Maria is three months pregnant. “I’m very happy, it’s a very wanted child,” she said. “But, you know, what if? What if I didn’t want to have this baby, or if I couldn’t? I’ve been in that I don’t know how my life would have changed, if I had had to have a baby at 23 because I had no other choice,” she said.

Since 2010, abortion has been free and legal in Spain. The new abortion law, if passed by the majority-conservative government, 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.

To qualify for that exception, two doctors unaffiliated with the woman’s abortion provider would have to file independent reports proving the fetus posed a threat to the mother’s health. Women under 18 would need their parents’ permission, and women who qualify for an exception would be first counseled on abortion alternatives like adoption or fostering.

Supporters of the reform have praised the law for preventing abortion in the case of a malformed fetus, comparing abortion in those cases to discrimination against disabled people.

"Eliminating a child with malformations would be tantamount to selecting the species, and would open the door to inhumanity," Gil Tamayo, a spokesman for the Spanish Episcopal Conference, told El País, Spain’s leading newspaper. "What we need are social policies and laws that truly assist the weakest. The elimination of an innocent being is never the solution to a problem, because in that case we could end world hunger by eliminating people, and that way we'd all get more."

Spanish consulate photo 1 Zoe Schlanger

Spain is a deeply Catholic country, with more than 70 percent of the population identifying as Catholic, a religion that equates abortion with murder. Yet 80 percent of all Spaniards oppose the proposed new abortion law, including 50 percent of those who identify as Catholic, according to a poll published in El País.

“I’m not in Spain now, so I can’t protest there,” Anna Melendez, who moved from Madrid to New York to work as an architect, told Newsweek. She came to the protest after a friend forwarded her a link to the Facebook event.

“Spain is a wonderful country. But they’re just doing things so badly now. It makes one reconsider how much you want to go back.”

An hour into the protest, snow began falling in fat wet glops. Posters were streaking. This reporter retreated to a nearby Container Store to regain feeling in her fingers. When she emerged five minutes later, the sidewalk in front of the Spanish consulate was empty except for the NYPD officers, carrying away the barricades.