Strict new law would force women out of country for abortions, experts say
Story by Carly Metz // Photos by Maria Amasanti
MADRID – For the first time in almost 30 years, women in Spain will have to travel abroad to get abortions if a proposed law passes Parliament by the end of the year.
The legislation would make abortion virtually illegal and would distinguish Spain as one of the most restrictive countries in Europe for people trying to get the procedure. If passed, experts say the new law would force pregnant women into the dark ages of self-inflicted and unregulated terminations.
“It’s an absolute attack on women’s autonomy over their own sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said Olga Sancho Valladolid, a spokeswoman for Clínica Dator, an abortion clinic in Madrid. “Women with less economic means or immigrants will find themselves forced to become mothers against their own will or turn to illegal or unsafe abortions, which could put their lives at risk,” she continued through a translator.
Advocates of the proposal, however, say that the reform is necessary in order to restrict the number of abortions occurring each year and to protect the rights of the unborn. “A woman should not have the right to kill a baby because it would be difficult or she feels unprepared to be a mother,” said Alvaro De La Torre, a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish public law and a former analyst for the Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies, a policy and research institute for the ruling Popular Party. “Abortion can not be used as a contraceptive method. It is not a morally acceptable way of controlling it.”
Known as the “Draft Organic Law on the Protection of the life of the unborn and the rights of the pregnant woman,” the measure was proposed in December of 2013 by the People’s Party. In power since 2011, the conservative ruling party has made or proposed a number of measures to scale back social welfare including services for undocumented immigrants and restrictions on access to national health care. The abortion reform, however, has been described as one of the most aggressive proposals yet from the majority party.
“It’s a purely ideological reform,” said Valladolid. “This reform came out because they found that there were certain conservative groups that were in favor of a reform. What they and a very small percentage of society consider to be a sin, they want to extend to the rest of society.”
Under the proposal, only women whose lives are at risk – a claim that would have to be verified by five professionals including doctors, psychologists and judges – and women who are raped would be allowed to receive the procedure.
This lengthy and complicated process differs significantly from the current standard, known as “The Law on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy,” in place since 2010. Under that, a woman can receive an abortion at any time, without a doctor’s note, in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. After that, it is still possible within 22 weeks of pregnancy to abort if there is a risk to the mother or fetus’s health. After that cut-off, a woman is only allowed to have an abortion if there is a serious risk of fatality to her or the fetus.
Abortion detractors think the current law is too liberal. “I think that abortion, which is something quite dramatic, is killing a human being. This can not be a right for anyone,” said De La Torre. “I can understand abortion should be permitted in the case of [rape] or if there is a big risk for a woman, and this is what this reform is speaking about – allowing the abortion in those limited cases. But as a general rule, I don’t think abortion should be a right for just anyone.”
Abortion advocates are not taking the threat casually, and have mobilized to do what they can to thwart the attempts of the People’s Party campaign. The Spanish Coordination for the European Women’s Lobby – which is an advocacy group for women’s equal rights – is one example.
The group created a fake travel agency called “Abortion Travel,” and is marketing it as a service for out-of-country arrangements for abortions. With the slogan “The travel agency that should never be,” the group – which has office space in Madrid and has a web site at http://www.abortiontravel.org – allows women to price out how much their abortions would cost taking into considering travel and medical costs outside of Spain. The effort also includes a petition hosted on change.org rallying opposition to the proposed reform. So far, more than 41,000 people have signed.
“If this law is passed, women will want to travel to other countries, which would be dangerous,” said Francisca García Gallego, president of the Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics, and a gynecologist in Grenada. Her organization represents 90 percent of the country’s abortion clinics, and seeks to ensure the highest quality care for women who wish to terminate their pregnancy.
Before 2010, residents of Spain had never had unfettered access to a termination procedure. During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and for 10 more years after his death in 1975, abortions were illegal. As a result, according to a 2001 study published in the European Journal of Public Health, more than 200,000 Spanish women from the years 1975 to 1984 alone traveled to England, Wales and the Netherlands to have the procedure done.
Then, in 1985, abortion was partially decriminalized for the first time by the Socialist government. The procedure was possible in three cases – if the pregnancy was due to rape or incest, if it was causing psychological or physical harm to the mother or if the fetus was disfigured. That’s the standard that remained until 2010, when access increased dramatically to what it remains today.
Though most residents in Spain are Catholic and the Catholic church clearly forbids abortion in any form other than if the woman’s health is in serious danger, recent national polls show public opinion is decidedly pro-choice. One tally by Spanish polling agency Metroscopia reported 86 percent of respondents believed women should have the right to choose to have an abortion.
In his office overlooking the central Plaza Mayor at the heart of the city of Salamanca, José Rodriguez, an employee of the Madrid-based Spanish Family Forum, talked about how he feels the proposed law is necessary to once again protect unborn children in Spain. The Family Forum is a civil association that defends the core value of family and also works to defend its conservative ideologies.
“Life is at the beginning of conception,” he said. “The new law doesn’t recognize abortion as a right. Doctors would have to determine whether [women] could have an abortion. This law would be a step forward in the protection of the unborn.”
De La Torre said something similar. “The Popular Party is trying to change what they [the Socialist party] did in 2010.” The more progressive Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party was in power in Spain from 2004 and 2011. “Handicapped people or disabled people don’t deserve to be aborted,” he added, bringing to attention the difference between the current law and proposed reform. Today, malformation of the fetus is justification for abortion, but under the new reform, that would not be the case.
There are plenty of people in the country who also agree with the People’s Party position.
A number of clinics in Madrid where abortions are performed, for example, have been vandalized in recent weeks. One of these, Clínica Isadora, located in northern Madrid, still has the faint shadows of a spray-painted scrawl that said “Abortion Murder” on its stony walls. Surrounding the clinic, fliers with declarations such as “They kill children here” were posted to telephone poles.
At Clínica Dator, located about two miles away and also in northern Madrid, Valladolid discussed how her site has faced protesters and vandalism since its opening in the mid-‘80s as the first legal clinic in Spain. Just a week ago, a security guard on duty interrupted an attempt. “When he went downstairs, he saw that there were some individuals breaking the glass of the door. When they saw the guard they ran away,” Valladolid said.
That isn’t the only issue the clinic faces, she added. “People have shot with a gun at the lighted sign. We are continuously insulted and abused verbally.”
Yet, they carry on their work there, she said, because the alternative, to them, is not acceptable.
Many Spanish women would agree. “It should be a personal choice,” said Nerea Ceñal, a 27-year-old consultant for a technology company in Madrid. “I think if a woman doesn’t want to have a baby, she would probably have an illegal abortion. The law isn’t going to change your opinion, or the decision that you are going to make.”