The most restrictive abortion draft law in the history of Spain, backed by the Spanish Conservative Government, has caused fury among the population. Olaya Astudillo reports.
At an agitated lunch in Asturias, a mountainous region of northern Spain, Begoña Piñero and her friends came up with the idea of the Freedom Train, a train journey from Gijón to Madrid to protest against the approval of a new restrictive abortion draft bill by the Council of Ministers on Dec 20, 2013. None of them expected the dimension their project would take. A surge of public support saw demonstrations taking place on Feb 1, 2014, not only all over Spain, but also in Paris, London, Italy, and even Latin America. Piñero, spokesperson for the Freedom Train, describes the emotional journey: “Crowds of people were supporting us at every stop, opening the path for us. When we arrived in Madrid, and we saw so many people, we thought ‘this is the tangible proof that we’ve had enough’, women should have the right to choose.”
In the legal history of Spain, abortion was long considered a crime. In 1985, through a reform of the penal code proposed by the ruling Socialist party, abortion, although still a crime, was decriminalised in three situations: serious physical or psychological risk to the mother, rape, and serious fetal anomalies. A dramatic change happened a quarter of a century later, when the law was liberalised in 2010 under the Socialist government: women could terminate pregnancy freely until the 14th week, and up to the 22nd week in case of serious health risk to the mother and serious deformities or life-incompatible pathologies of the fetus.
Now the Popular Party, in power since 2011, aims to revert to the 1985 law, albeit with more limitative criteria for decriminalisation. Abortion is decriminalised in two situations: in case of rape up to the 12th week, and when the mother’s life or mental or physical health is at serious risk up to the 22nd week. Fetal deformities would have to be incompatible with life to be accepted as a reason for abortion. The new draft law also increases red tape: two specialists are now required to confirm the maternal health criterion (compared with one in 1985), and an interview with a social worker becomes mandatory.
Francisca García Gallego, president of the Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics, which represents more than 90% of Spain’s abortion clinics, is concerned that if approved by the Spanish Parliament, this reform would gravely affect the health of Spanish women. She explains that of the 112 390 women who had an abortion in Spain in 2012, about 100 000 did it for reasons that would not be valid anymore under the draft law.
“What worries us is that this draft law turns its back to the reality of most women who have an abortion in our country, and is therefore condemning them to either act clandestinely, have a forced pregnancy, or travel to another country to have a safe abortion”, García Gallego points out.
Restrictive laws decrease access to safe abortions and therefore increase maternal mortality. They can also have a differential impact among women. “In many countries…we know the incidence of unintended pregnancy is higher among poor women and immigrant women”, points out Gilda Sedgh from the Guttmacher Institute, USA. “These are women who will have less access to cross-border abortions, which are the resources that would help them terminate pregnancy safely.”
Many Spaniards wonder why this change in law is happening now. According to a poll done by Spanish polling agency Metroscopia in January this year, 86% of the respondents believe that every pregnant woman should have the right to freely choose whether to have a termination. Another 75% believe that the reform is not necessary. “There was no social demand, the abortion rate was among the lowest in Europe”, says García Gallego, so why now? “This law change only responds to ideological motives to satisfy the most conservative sectors of the Popular Party.”
However, Sedgh explains that this is not the tendency identified elsewhere: “Worldwide, the trend in the past two decades has been towards broadening the grounds under which abortion is legal and accessible. So in that context, Spain is among the exceptions, as is the US in terms of our state-level restrictions.”
The Spanish Parliament is not expected to debate the draft bill before the European elections of May 25. Until then, the pro-choice campaigners will not give up the fight. “We want this draft law to never get approved, that’s our objective”, García Gallego says. “We will continue to organise demonstrations, debates, get all social sectors involved, and put into evidence that what they’re doing is not in response to a social necessity.”