Protests in Spain over plan to reduce access to abortion

Mariano Rajoy’s government wants to limit terminations to when a woman is pregnant as the result of rape or if her health is at risk

A pro-choice protest in Neptuno Square, Madrid, earlier this month. A recent poll showed that 80 per cent of Spaniards oppose the planned reform. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

A pro-choice protest in Neptuno Square, Madrid, earlier this month. A recent poll showed that 80 per cent of Spaniards oppose the planned reform. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images


Sitting behind her desk in the Isadora abortion clinic that she heads, Empar Pineda could be mistaken for just another medical professional. She turns 70 this year and her easy manner and friendly smile offer little hint of a life spent at the front line of the battle for women’s rights.

But it is a battle that she fiercely believes still needs to be fought in Spain today, not least because of the reform to the country’s abortion law the conservative government wants to push through congress.

“We’re returning to the ideology of the Franco era, of deciding that women are no more than mothers,” she says. “This reform 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.”

When Pineda talks about the dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, she does so from bitter experience, having been imprisoned for her political activism during the latter years of the right-wing regime.

The draft Bill she is so angry about seeks to ensure women can have abortions under two conditions only: if the pregnancy in question is the result of a rape (until week 12), or if the woman’s health is at risk because of the baby she is carrying (until week 22).

The new reform is a throwback to a 1985 law, Spain’s first abortion legislation in the democratic era, which was seen as a major development at the time, but restrictive in comparison to most laws in place in present- day Europe.

This contrasts with the legislation currently in place, which was introduced in 2010, allowing free abortion whatever the circumstances until the 14th week of a pregnancy.

A hard-won right
Campaigners like Pineda believe free access to abortion is, like the welfare state or same-sex marriage, a hard-won right that has helped make Spain a modern democracy. But they also insist that it serves a highly practical use as well: preventing the health of pregnant women from being needlessly put at risk.

“[Under the new reform] a lot of women will have to do what they did in the past,” she says. “Those who have money will go abroad for abortions – to Portugal, France, Holland or the UK. Those who don’t have money will have to resort to methods that are unsafe and which put their lives at risk.”

The government of Mariano Rajoy had pledged an abortion reform in its election manifesto and many observers believe its unveiling on December 20th was timed to mobilise the core Catholic supporters of his Popular Party (PP) in advance of May’s European elections and boost its flagging polls.

But the backlash against the reform has been passionate, reflected in a recent poll showing that 80 per cent of Spaniards oppose it.

A number of pro-choice demonstrations have been staged in recent weeks, including a “freedom train” earlier this month, which carried hundreds of activists from northern Spain to Madrid for a massive protest.

Last weekend, bare-breasted activists from the feminist organisation Femen surrounded the archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, as he was entering a church in the capital, chanting “abortion is sacred” at him. Yet, worryingly for Rajoy, his controversial draft law has only lukewarm support among practising Catholics.

Cardinal Rouco Varela, who is also head of the Spanish Catholic Church, described the reform as an “improvement”, but as Alvaro Gutiérrez, of the civic organisation Catholic Voices, explains, not all churchgoers are convinced.

‘Change in tone’
“A lot of Spanish Catholics are in favour of it because they feel that there is a positive change in tone, a distinction which is at least psychological,” he says. “But there is also a very strong current of [Catholics] who oppose this law as well.”

He includes himself in this latter bracket, highlighting the fact that the reform still allows abortions to take place, rather than prohibiting them altogether.“There’s a lot of false controversy surrounding this,” he says “But in the practical sense there’s nothing that’s going to change.”

Gutiérrez can point to statistics to back up his argument. About 110,000 registered abortions take place in Spain each year (the vast majority in private clinics). The annual figure was not noticeably lower prior to 2010, when the then-Socialist government introduced free abortion. This was almost certainly because in the period 1985-2010, many women took advantage of the clause in the law allowing abortion if the woman’s health was at risk. Citing deterioration of their “mental health”, women could use that condition as something akin to a loophole.

With a similar clause reintroduced in the new draft Bill, there is a possibility that instead of preventing abortions from taking place, it will simply encourage women to deceive their doctors. However, pro-choice campaigners warn the reform is extremely strict in this regard.

Emotive issue
Whatever the practical repercussions of the reform, it has already had a political impact. Rajoy had hoped that Spain’s incipient economic recovery would dominate the agenda in early 2014, but instead he has opened up a new front on a highly charged issue that is leaving his government increasingly isolated.

Tellingly, some senior figures within the governing party have broken ranks. The opposition organised two votes in congress this week in an effort to block the abortion reform. While the PP’s majority was enough to prevent it from being derailed, Celia Villalobos, the party’s deputy speaker in the chamber, voted against the Bill.

Likewise, Alberto Monago, premier of the Extremadura region, has chided his party for not presenting a law that “connects with society and reflects modern-day Spain”.

“We’re looking at a social conflict that can divide the right, unite the left and create a clamour in the streets,” noted political commentator Andrés Ortega, who compared the abortion Bill to a previous PP government’s notoriously unpopular decision to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

With the Bill not due to face its final debate and vote in congress until at least the spring, the government must decide whether it listens to the voices of dissent or pushes ahead with a deeply divisive law.

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