Abortion rights in Spain: back to the past

Spain's conservative right is taking the opportunity whilst in power at a time of economic crisis to revive its historic determination to suppress women's reproductive rights, putting the clock back nearly 30 years when abortion was first decriminalised

Liz Cooper
9 October 2012

Given the standard stereotype of Spain as a place of sun, sex and sangria, it was both unexpected and refreshing in the hot days of summer last year, to see the “Indignados” movement emerge and make international headlines, becoming for a brief spell nearly as famous as the Arab Spring. The movement took off in cities all over Spain to protest against the massive levels of unemployment and impossible house prices. People of all ages set up impromptu debates on reform of the electoral system, demanding a more participative democracy whilst at the same time growing tomatoes successfully in the main squares, setting up tents and childcare co-ops. Part of their political platform was to recommend denying a vote to the two major parties in the then forthcoming elections. Some analysts consider this made it easier for the right to come in with an absolute majority in the general election that followed in November last year. Blaming the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE), in power since 2004, for the economic crisis, the electorate voted to the right perhaps with the hope of saving the economy.

Huge crowd, most people with hands in the air

Protestors in Barcelona participate in group decision-making, May 2011.Photo: M. Vicidomini

Although Spain has a form of proportional representation, it is dominated by two major parties at general elections: the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Workers Party of Spain. The PP is a conservative party with its roots firmly in the extreme right of the past. It is no secret that the founding member, Manuel Fraga, who died earlier this year aged 89, was an executive member of Franco’s dictatorship for many years.

The first few months of the new Government have been all about public spending cuts, ferocious by some standards but claimed by Mariano Rajoy, the President of Spain, to be inevitable, and not his fault. It is difficult to know what voters were expecting. Within the first year there have already been two general strikes and many street protests. Last month, thousands of people took to the streets again, initially in Madrid, but by the end of the week in cities all over Spain, in protest against the Government’s handling of the crisis. The Madrid action was to try to surround the Congress building, the equivalent of the House of Commons in London. The police reaction was such that the incidents made international headlines, with hundreds of images on YouTube, in the press and on television, of brutal attacks on protestors, even on the suburban line rail platforms in Madrid. Called “En pie” (On your feet), the organisers are promising further protests. The movement appears to be an amalgam of members of the “Indignados” and established hard left groups (El País, 27 September 2012). The Home Office Minister described the police response as “magnificent” and “splendid”, neglecting to mention that the riot squads who charged the crowd, resulting in over 60 people injured and 34 arrested, had their identification numbers hidden. This is illegal in Spain, as in most democratic systems.

In this environment, under continued Government attack are several crucial areas of major importance to women which will affect them more than men. In July, the Minister for Justice, Ruiz Gallardón, announced new plans relating to abortion which include the removal of automatic rights for women to an abortion in the first 14 weeks, a measure only recently established by the then Socialist Government in 2010. Also since the first of July in practically the whole of Spain, pensioners have to pay part or all of the cost of prescription medicines for the first time since the introduction of a national health service. This summer has seen payments to carers of dependent people at home cut by 15% and new stricter criteria established on which the payments are to be based. Last month, 20,000 fewer teachers went back to work in the state school system and the numbers per class have been increased by as much as 20%.

Fewer opportunities and reduced support for women in the teaching and caring professions, where women dominate at least in terms of numbers, will affect women’s earning capacity, and the living standards of pensioners, more of whom are women, will be cut by requiring payment for prescription medicines.

The resulting scenario is familiar to any Spanish citizen over the age of 50. In all of the above examples, Spain has seen it before. Under Franco there was neither a national health service nor social security, abortion was illegal, and all teaching programmes and the selection of teachers were under Government and the Church’s strict control. A woman’s place was firmly in the home. It is only 34 years since Spain became a constitutional democracy (December 1978), a form of government which is beginning to look increasingly fragile.

Spain’s conservative right is taking the opportunity of being in power at a time of economic and financial crisis to revive its historic determination to suppress women’s reproductive rights, putting the clock back nearly 30 years, when abortion was first decriminalised.

A law passed in 1985 by the then Socialist government legalised abortion for the first time under three major conditions: to preserve the physical and mental health of the mother; if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest; if the foetus was likely to suffer mental or physical abnormalities at birth. There were various restrictions as to time limits and the necessity for doctors’ agreement, and young women under the age of 18 needed parental permission. It was very restrictive compared with many other European countries at the time but a major break through for women in Spain.

In 2010, stimulated by the European proposals on abortion laws in 2008, the Socialist Government under Rodrigues Zapatero pushed through major changes to the 1985 law. It was another first. Abortion was made available on demand up to 14 weeks and with certain limitations, up to 22 weeks. It was a remarkable achievement in a country still under the sway of Catholic dogma on when “life” begins.

But in the election campaign in October 2011, the PP announced its intention of looking again at the 2010 law: “correcting errors made at the time” as the Minister for Justice put it last month in an interview with ABC, the daily paper most attached to the Church and the present Government. If the PP gets its way, Spain will join Ireland to become the only two major European countries that prohibit abortion where the foetus is malformed.

There is concern not only amongst women’s groups and non-Catholics. A survey in July, carried out by El País, the most respected centre-left paper in Spain, found that 81% of responses were against banning abortion in cases of malformation of the foetus. As the country watches, the biggest case ever brought against a private clinic for carrying out hundreds of illegal abortions outside the legal time limits, has just begun and is expected to last for at least two months. It is a particularly important case as over 95% of legal abortions in Spain are performed in private clinics. It will open up the debate on abortion once again all over the country.

A spokeswoman for the Federation of Progressive Women, an association of over a hundred women’s groups, has recently commented that many of the reforms appear to be directed at returning women to the traditional female role: from the public sector to the family domain. Back to the past.


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