Abortion rights: victory for women in Spain

As the political analysts get into their stride over the Spanish Government's decision to back down over mediaeval reforms to the current abortion law, citing everything from conspiracy theories to a feminist victory, the Catholic Church has taken a beating and is busy churning out hate messages.

Liz Cooper
29 September 2014

“Gallardón dimite” (Gallardón resigns): two words spattered all over Facebook and Twitter a few hours after President Mariano Rajoy of Spain, before leaving for a visit to China, formally confirmed that the reforms to the 2010 abortion law, sponsored by the Minister for Justice Ruis Gallardón, had been withdrawn for “lack of consensus”. It meant for hundreds of thousands a double celebration: the rejection of the most restrictive legislation on abortion in Europe, except in Ireland and Malta, and the resignation of a member of the Spanish governing party the Partido Popular (PP) intent on imposing by law a picture of women incapable of making a decision, needing to be protected from themselves.

The now ex-Minister for Justice Ruis Gallardón, had pledged himself to continue his “fight for the freedom of women and the defence of the right to life of the conceived” in a vague and confused reference to his possible resignation predicted by the newspaper ABC, just over a week earlier. His planned reforms to the current abortion law included the restriction of abortion to cases of rape and serious health risks to the mother, a clause that malformation of the foetus was not to be a reason to abort per se, and an obstacle course of immense complexity and difficulty for any woman seeking a free and legal abortion.

President Rajoy, who has been called the first President to rule by avoiding comment and playing a waiting game, had said little about the law since May when he stated it would not be withdrawn.  He now claims lack of consensus led to his final decision, but consensus within Parliament was never likely. Since the day the Cabinet endorsed the Gallardón campaign in December 2013, nine months ago, all political parties except the governing PP and a minor right-wing group the UPyD, had made their opposition to the reforms abundantly clear and differences within the PP itself have grown apace.

Whatever the real reasons for dumping the law, it is clear that this round in the roller-coaster battle for women’s reproductive rights has gone to women. For the moment the 2010 abortion law giving women the right to an abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy remains intact. However, the Catholic Church and the conservative PP have never accepted the law and may now take up once again the attempt to prove it is unconstitutional.  It has already been announced by Rajoy that the clause that allows young women of 16 and 17 to have an abortion without permission of their parents, is to be withdrawn.

Explanations for the withdrawal of the law point largely to electoral concerns, with the forthcoming general election in 2015, and the seriousness of public concern Even the Government must have noticed the rejection of the reforms by over 80% of the Spanish electorate according to the polls. Since the PP took over the government in 2011, the streets of Madrid and many other cities in Spain have become the focus of protests against the Government; above all against the cuts to health and education budgets, the never-ending corruption revelations mostly within the governing party, the lack of a fair and effective justice system, the support given by the government to the banks, the extortion practised by the banks themselves in selling savings accounts, and repeatedly against evictions and the projected reforms to the 2010 abortion law. It has been a period of continuous demonstrations and protests, many led by women’s groups against the reforms to the abortion law.

Perhaps the most dramatic and effective of those was the protest with the tag El Tren de la Libertad -The Liberty Train. The initiative came from women’s groups in the north of Spain, 500 km from Madrid, who hired a couple of wagons on the train that runs from Gijon to the capital to carry 150 women supporters ready to march to Parliament (Las Cortes) with a demand that the Government leave the 2010 abortion law in place. They put their plans on Facebook. On arrival in Madrid they were met by thousands of people from all over Spain, with many international supporters, and headed over 30,000 exuberant protestors to the Parliament building where a small number were permitted to present their demand. The Liberty Train fired the imagination of people all over the world and there were demonstrations in solidarity in many cities in Europe.  A women’s film crew travelled on the train and on the march; the resulting film was shown at this year’s international Film Festival in San Sebastian, and in London at the Festival of Choice screened in the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre, held last week.

The World Health Organization, the European Parliament and Amnesty International were quick to condemn the proposed reforms as a violation of women’s rights and international opposition has grown steadily. The European elections in May threw up another obstruction to Government plans when a new Spanish left wing party, Podemos, put up candidates after a campaign of only a few weeks, receiving more than a million votes and gaining 5 seats in the European Parliament. The PP and the Socialist Party (PSOE) both lost over two and a half million votes and were severely shaken. In their European programme Podemos had underlined their support for the right of women to decide for themselves on the issue of abortion.

As the political analysts get into their stride over the failure of the law, citing everything from conspiracy theories to a feminist victory, the Catholic Church is busy churning out hate messages. A Bishop from an area half-an-hour’s drive northwest of Madrid told his parishioners just last week that the Liberty Train was comparable to the trains that carried Jews to the death camps in Nazi Germany. The now ex-Archbishop Rouco Varela of Madrid, often referred to by the Spanish press as the vice-Pope, will be proud of him. Head of the Spanish Episcopal Conference for twelve years, created Cardinal in 1998 and a major figure on the right in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Rouco had threatened earlier to excommunicate any Ministers who voted for the changes made by the Zapatero Government in 2010. He also issued comments of the type that the 2010 abortion law had raised the number abortions to terrifying heights, a statement found to be completely false, in his vociferous determination to abolish legal abortion in Spain

It may be coincidental, but the ex-Archbishop has suffered several rebuffs from the new Pope. On reaching the retirement age of 75 under Pope Benedict, Archbishop Rouco continued in office; with Pope Francis on the papal throne, the tables were turned and the Archbishop’s resignation was accepted, it is said to his utter astonishment and fury.  He recently announced that he will not leave the Bishop’s Palace in Madrid and has decided to squat, drawing from the Vatican the laconic remark that they hope he will see sense and not act in a way unprecedented since the Middle Ages. The Vatican had already slapped his wrists over his insistence on wearing a scarlet cloak with a 60 foot train to deliver mass, when it had been made absolutely clear that such pomp and circumstance was not to the new Pope’s liking. More seriously, Pope Francis has named Rouco’s successor, another shock for the Archbishop who had become used to making all his own decisions in terms of who does what in the Catholic Church in Spain.

The coincidences mount. Eight days before the withdrawal of the abortion reforms and one day before the national newspaper ABC predicted Gallardón’s resignation if the reforms were ditched, the vice-President of the Spanish Government, Soroya Sáenz de Santamaría was in the Vatican in talks with the Vatican number 2 which included discussing a possible visit from the Pope to Spain in 2015 (election year).  A visit by the Pope in election year, however brief, would be invaluable to the PP, but if the reforms had been pushed through Parliament against serious opposition, the visit might easily become a target for the media. It is well known that Pope Francis is working hard to persuade the world of a new, enlightened, more egalitarian and responsible Vatican for the 21st century.  He would surely not want to have his hand forced. He would expect to pick his own timetable to deal with the two major issues that relate to women in the Catholic Church, and on which he has so far avoided attracting headlines: abortion and the eternal question of women priests.

So public rejection, continuous protests, international condemnation, the electorate switching away from the usual voting patterns, Vatican uncertainty as to timing and a lack of open support from the President for whatever reason, are some of the factors that have stopped Gallardón and the Catholic Church in their tracks. Both men, Gallardón and Rouco, major spokesmen in support of a law on abortion based on catholic dogma, have been relegated to the side-lines in the Spanish political-religious hierarchy. 

But it is in essence a victory for women. There will be dancing in the streets of Gijon as some of the very women who fought for the 1985 law as a first step to free and legal abortion after the dictatorship’s zero policy, some 30 years later celebrate their success, with so many others, in bringing conservative religious attitudes towards women to at least a temporary shuddering halt. Whatever this government does to try to regain credibility with the extreme right and the Catholic Church in Spain, sooner or later the Spanish people will surely have to acknowledge the non-confessional state that Spain is; as their Constitution asserts.


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