Spain’s Abortion Law Under Threat Despite Rescue

The ruling party is pushing ahead with a restriction on minors and the current abortion law—safeguarded in September-could be weakened by a decision of the country's Constitutional Court. But for now, pro-choice activists are breathing a sigh of relief.

MADRID (WOMENSENEWS)—When the government of Mariano Rajoy decided last September to scrap its plans to adopt one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, activist Marisa Soleto realized she could slow down and refocus her energies.

“It has been two years of local and national mobilization. The level of our work has now decreased…We look forward to returning to normality,” said Soleto, director of Fundación Mujeres (Women's Foundation), which works to improve the social, political and economic status of women. “The worst danger has passed so now we can come back to the traditional agenda of our organization.”

Soleto doesn't think abortion will be very important in the country’s upcoming December elections since the ruling party abandoned its initiative knowing it would have worked against them in the elections.

But that doesn't mean her work is done. “Our battle is also focused in Europe,” she said in an interview at the foundation's headquarters in Madrid. “We don't want what happened in Spain to happen in Europe, and we want to try to avoid a situation again where a change in government will be a problem for women's rights.”

In December 2013 Spain's conservative Popular Party followed up on a campaign promise and announced plans to tighten the country’s liberal abortion law. The current law, amended in 2010 by the then-socialist government, allows abortion on demand up to the 14th week of pregnancy and up to 22 weeks if there is a risk to the mother's health or if the fetus has serious problems. It brings Spain in line with most of the European Union.

The national and international backlash that followed resulted in the proposed bill being scrapped in September and the resignation of Spain's Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who introduced the text.

The battles are hardly over, though. On the legislative front, some members of the ruling party continue to talk about getting back to the law that legalized abortion in 1985 with heavy restrictions. As part of that, they plan to pass legislation requiring parental consent for minors. Meanwhile, a pending case in the Constitutional Court, brought by the Popular Party when it was out of power, could also restrict the current law.

In light of this, Yolanda Besteiro, president of Federación de Mujeres Progresistas (Federation of Progressive Women), said members of her group, since the failure of the government’s abortion measure, have been “happy but also worried.”

Influence on Latin American

Part of the pressure on Spain’s liberal abortion law, said Besteiro, is tied to the country's strong influence in Latin America. “The [Catholic] Church is fighting hard to avoid abortion being a right for women here because it could maybe influence Latin America. It wasn't a woman's right before 2010 because there were many restrictions,” she said. “The church is very angry with the government now.”

Access to abortion, legalized in Spain in 1985 after the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, was further eased in 2010, with changes such as the procedure becoming available up to 14 weeks of pregnancy on a woman's request and minors being able to get an abortion without parental consent.

The Popular Party's abandoned measure would have allowed abortion only in cases of rape, when there was a serious health risk to the mother or when fetal deformities would endanger a child's life if born. Women would have needed two doctors to verify those conditions. The bill was similar to the 1985 law, though some said the new version was even stricter.

“We were aware the government wanted to change the law but we didn't expect the severe change that was proposed,” said Dr. Isabel Serrano, a gynecologist in Madrid and spokesperson for the platform Decidir Nos Hace Libres, which includes over 200 groups that campaigned against the proposal.

“This period was on one hand horrible because we were aware the change could be very dangerous for women” added Serrano during an interview at her clinic. “On the other hand, we had the opportunity to network with other organizations, mass media supported us and we learned how to confront anti-choice groups.”

Despite its failure, the current government is trying to keep part of the reform alive. Its parental-consent effort targets a 2010 liberalization that said minors between 16 and 18 seeking an abortion must inform their parents but don't need their consent. Now the government wants to include a requirement of parental consent for 16- and 17-year-olds in a bill on the protection of children.

Most teens ask for permission, said Besteiro from the Federation of Progressive Women, but because the “debate with teens is very important for the society, the Popular Party wants to keep that debate alive to have a reason to change the law.”

Maria del Carmen Quintanilla, a Popular Party lawmaker, spoke about parental consent in interview at her office in one of the Parliament buildings. “It's a disgrace that girls of 16 years old can have an abortion without their parents' consent,” she said. “Here in Spain the permission of parents for those under 18 is important. If a girl under 16 wants to go to the museum, to go on school trips, she needs permission. So why should it be different for abortion ? We don't want abortion to be a contraception method.”

Quintanilla said the Popular Party will introduce the change in Parliament soon, before the election in December, but couldn't specify when.

Awaiting Court Ruling

The ruling party’s anti-abortion effort could also be helped by a decision from Spain's Constitutional Court. In June 2010, shortly after the more liberal abortion law was introduced, the Popular Party filed an action against several provisions of the text for violating an article of the constitution that states “everyone has the right to life.”

“We're worried about the Constitutional Court since it is very conservative, that women's rights [to abortion] could eventually disappear,” Francisca Garcia, president of Spain's Official Abortion Clinics Association (ACAI), whose clinics have been providing abortion since 1985, said in a phone interview. In addition to the provision pertaining to minors, another provision being challenged, she said, is whether abortion is a woman's choice within a specific time period, or that of her doctor, based on certain conditions.

Angeles Alvarez, a socialist lawmaker, said the minors-related reform will most likely pass since the Popular Party has the majority. “It's a gift for the Catholic fundamentalists,” she said. And if it passes as a law, Alvarez predicted the Constitutional Court would set aside the question of parental consent. “The main question is if the Constitutional Court will accept the time period to get an abortion.”

None of the politicians or activists Women's eNews spoke to knew when the Constitutional Court would render its decision, though Garcia believes it will be this year.

The Popular Party and its supporters have argued that the 2010 law needs to be reformed in part because it's fueling abortions. Undercutting that argument, the latest abortion figures published by the Ministry of Health indicate abortions in Spain declined slightly to 108,690 in 2013 from 112,390 in 2012.

Fewer women of reproductive age, immigrant women leaving Spain and the country's current economic crisis have contributed to the decrease in abortions, according to ACAI, as perhaps has the wide availability of the morning-after pill, said Serrano.

“Abortion in Spain is not a social problem,” said Dr. Roberto Lertxundi, a Spanish delegate to the board of the European Society of Contraception and Reproductive Health. “Its rate is lower than the rate in France, Poland, Italy etc. It's a political and ideological problem.”

Monthly polls conducted by the Spanish Center of Sociologic Studies find that reforming the current abortion law has never been a priority for Spaniards. Based on the latest results of a poll conducted in October 2014, just 0.1 percent of respondents cited the abortion law as their primary concern. Spaniards are, however, worried about the high unemployment rate, the country's corruption and fraud and politics in general. The abortion law is not even cited as a concern in polls conducted in the previous months and years.

Anti-Abortion Groups March On

Despite this, anti-abortion activists here are energized by a sense that the government betrayed them in scrapping the effort.

Dr. Gador Joya, a pediatrician and spokesperson of the pro-life platform Right to Live, talked of treason. “We feel this government has lied to the people who put confidence in them,” Joya said in an interview at the organization's headquarters.

She said her group conducted a poll of 1,500 people and asked if they'd vote for Rajoy again if he didn't pass the law and 45 percent said no. Now, Joya said, they're campaigning against Rajoy, threatening to splinter support for the Popular Party in the December elections. “We are going to explain to people that we cannot vote for a president who lies to us.”

Her group helped organize a “pro-life” march in Madrid in late November last year, where many marchers also expressed disappointment and said they're considering not voting for the Popular Party later this year.

But for 83-year-old Ana Luz de Hwete, who didn't attend the protest because she said she's too old, though all six of her children and 26 grandchildren marched, there is no other choice. Hwete, who's been a Popular Party supporter her whole life, said she'll still vote for them, even though it's awful that they failed to pass the reform. “I will continue to vote for them because of all the parties, the Popular Party is less bad,” she said.

The Popular Party will also have to contend with the one-year-old, left-wing political party Podemos (meaning “We Can”), which is quickly growing in popularity, during the elections. Besides wanting to take on economic corruption and a better redistribution of wealth, Podemos' social policies include proposing free access to abortion and sex education.

While its reform failed, the Popular Party’s Quintanilla said the government is now working on a more “consensual” text and trying to broaden its appeal to other factions.

“The Popular Party made a promise and we need to do what we promised,” she said. “We know that we have to work on the text because it affects sentiments, consciousness and ethics. What we want is to return to the law of 1985. It is a law that was well accepted by the Spanish society and we want them to accept the text, not to divide the society.”

Quintanilla is confident that an agreement can be reached but doesn't specify how that effort would be different from the failed attempt. “I think it is possible to get a consensus as we got it with the law of 1985 by speaking with women's groups, pro-life organizations and with every part of society that is interested in discussing this topic, but also wait for the decision of the Constitutional Court,” she said.

This story was reported and produced by Juhie Bhatia, Women's eNews' managing editor, and Hajer Naili, Women's eNews' staff reporter for the series “Backlash in Europe: Women's Reproductive Rights Threatened.” This special project was funded by a group of private donors and contributors to the Women's eNews Catapult online campaign. Join the conversation on reproductive health issues in Spain and France on Twitter #EUReproRights.