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Spanish abortion law: step back in time

The Spanish conservative government led by Mariano Rajoy has recently decided to reform the national abortion law. In light of the permanently ongoing pro-life or pro-choice debate, Adriana Díaz Martín-Zamorano analyses the status quo of abortion in Spain as well as the possible consequences that could emerge from the controversial new legislation.

When a Spanish woman was pregnant in 1980 and wanted to have an abortion she would face two options: travel abroad to countries which allowed abortion, such as the United Kingdom, or have a secret abortion. Thirty years later, in 2010, the government passed legislation that allowed a woman to have an abortion in Spain with the Ley de Salud Sexual y Reproductiva e Interrupción Voluntaria del Embarazo (Law of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy). But the current ruling conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has recently decided to take a step back in time in terms of women’s rights and amend this legislation.

Abortion as a crime
In most European countries abortion is a right. 20 out of the 28 Member States of the EU, including Germany, France, The Netherlands, Greece or Italy, allow women to legally abort their pregnancy without providing any specific reason within a certain limited amount of time –usually between the 12th and the 14th  weeks of pregnancy. Since 2010, that has also been the case in Spain, but the national Council of Ministers approved on the 20th December of 2013 a new system. Ley para la Protección de la Vida del Concebido y de los Derechos de la Mujer Embarazada (Law for the Protection of Life of the Conceived and the Rights of the Pregnant Woman), criminalises abortion, excluding a couple of scenarios such as rape and risk to the woman’s health. In addition, this ‘severe risk’ for the woman’s health has to be recognised by a medical report signed by two different doctors –up until now only one signature was required. Furthermore, the signatory can’t perform the abortion or even work in the same clinic where the procedure would take place.

Right now, only five countries in the EU – Poland, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Poland – have similar legislation on abortion. In fact, in the UK and Cyprus the range measures are way wider than the new amended Spanish law and include significant criteria, such as fetal deformation, which is reflected in the current abortion legislation in Spain and would be eliminated by the changes. Nevertheless, in other Member States, like Malta or Ireland, abortion is even more restricted. For instance, in Malta abortion is banned and Ireland has only reformed its abortion law recently in order to include suicide risk as a factor. The conservative decision creates further distance between Spain and its neighbouring countries while turning it into the only state in the EU that has carried out a structural reform of its abortion law to harden its conditions in the recent years.

A step back in women’s rights that enhances social and economic inequality
The truth is that strict rules around abortion did not seem odd or outdated during the Spanish transition to democracy from Franco’s dictatorship, but these measures now seem reactionary in an established democracy: a trip back in a time machine and a clear step back in women’s rights. Furthermore, the draft law does not only represent a symbolic decrease in rights, it can also have highly negative social consequences and enhance inequality in economic terms. If the parliamentary procedure approves the reform, Spanish women who need or want to have an abortion will have to travel to countries where abortion is legal or have a secret abortion in Spain. While the first possibility is strictly related to personal income thus enhancing economic inequalities, since not everyone can afford travelling abroad to go through such process; the alternative choice is often performed under dangerous conditions and consequently threatens women’s lives.

Pro-life or pro-choice?
In light of the ongoing abortion debate –pro-life or pro-choice-, what is clear is that the focus of the abortion reform is on the foetus to be born ahead of the woman’s right to choose. The conservative Spanish Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who has launched the controversial law, claimed that ‘we can’t make the life of a foetus to be born depend on a woman’s will’. The Minister also understands that illegal abortions will have penal consequences for the doctor and not for the woman by justifying that woman is a ‘victim’ of abortion, an argument that has been labelled by some feminist groups as ‘paternalist’. Gallardón also defends that the main reason this new law has been carried out is mainly to fulfil ‘an electoral commitment’.

The public reaction towards the new legislation has been polarised. On the one hand, Christian institutions, such as the Spanish Episcopal Conference, presided by Madrid’s archbishop, Antonio María Rouco Varela, have expressed their satisfaction for the ‘improvement’ in the abortion law because it is important to ‘support both in theory and in practice the right to life’. On the other hand, several feminist associations have successfully organised demonstrations in the largest Spanish cities, like Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, as well as in European cities, such as London, Dublin and Lisbon, calling for the dropping of the abortion draft. Last week Madrid’s Feminist Movement hosted a demonstration attended by around 15,000 citizens holding rue and parsley branches up in their hands –two plants traditionally used to interrupt pregnancy. The spokesperson of Madrid’s Feminist Movement, Laura Montero, declared to the press agency Efe that the greatest problem is that ‘women who don’t have money are condemned to insecure abortion which can lead them to death’. The opposition to the reform has not only been heard in the streets, but also on a political level: critical voices from the main opposition party, Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), rejected motions presented from local governments –even some ruled by the conservative party- and fierce debates in the European Parliament (EP) have divided left-wing and liberal parties against right-wing and Eurosceptic parties.

The unpopularity of the abortion reform shows that it would be appropriate for the Spanish government to reconsider the viability of carrying out such restrictive measures in the 21st century. However, for the moment, the Minister of Justice has given ‘his word’ that protests will not prevent his commitment to fulfil the electoral programme in terms of regulating the rights of pregnant women and the child to be born.

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