Letter from Spain

Issue section: 
(344)

In the wake of controversial proposals by the Spanish government, Tamara Ruiz reports on the fight for abortion rights

Controversial proposals by Spain's Socialist Party (PSOE) government to modify the country's abortion legislation have led to waves of protest both by the right, which wants them withdrawn altogether, and by a revitalised women's movement which points to their severe limitations.

The present abortion law was passed in 1985 during the first PSOE government. This law was an advance after 36 years of Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975) during which women saw their rights pushed back at all levels. Despite this repression clandestine abortions were common, given the lack of birth control measures available for women (contraceptives were illegal until 1978).

Conservative legislation continued to heavily penalise abortion during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. As late as 1979, 11 women from Bilbao were taken to court for having aborted. This led to a massive campaign of solidarity organised by feminist groups which continued until the courts were forced to pardon the accused in 1982.

Since the 1970s one of the key demands of feminists in Spain has been for free abortion and the right to choose. In 1981 the first national Conference for Abortion Rights was held.

It was in this context that the PSOE government passed the 1985 law which de-penalised abortions in certain cases: when there were serious threats to the physical or mental health of pregnant women; when pregnancy was the result of rape; or the existence of serious malformations in the foetus (if detected during the first 22 weeks of pregnancy). Any abortion that did not come within these limits was considered illegal and any medical personnel involved in carrying it out could be fined, lose their job or even be sent to prison.

Although the PSOE reformed the Penal Code in 1995 they did not de-penalise abortion.

After 24 years of limited abortion rights, and the polemic created in recent years by accusations from "pro-life" groups aimed at clinics for supposedly providing illegal abortions, the juridical insecurity could not be starker for those health workers who carry out abortions and the women who undergo them.

The present PSOE government last year introduced a reform of existing legislation, which has just been approved by parliament.

This reform eliminates three situations in which abortion was previously de-penalised. It also distinguishes two types of voluntary interruption of pregnancy: when requested by the pregnant woman during the first 14 weeks or for medical reasons (during the first 22 weeks in case of serious risk to the health or life of the pregnant woman or risk of serious anomalies in the foetus, and no time limit when such anomalies are life-threatening).

This means that women who decide freely to abort, and until now had done so under the first clause of the 1985 law (95 percent of abortions carried out annually), under which there was no time limit, cannot do so now after the 14th week.

The worst aspect of the reform is the 22-week limit to carry out "voluntary interruptions of pregnancy" in the case of serious threats to the health or life of pregnant women, which previously had no time limit. Thus the supposed "right to life" of the foetus is given preference not only over a woman's right to choose but also over her health or even her life.

Neither does the right to choose really exist during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, given that it is obligatory to receive information about maternity benefits, following which women must spend at least three days "reflecting" on their situation. This is a clear attempt to undermine their capacity to decide.

While it is the case that the new law will for the first time allow 16 and 17 year old women to abort, their autonomy to decide is undermined because they are compelled to inform their parents or guardians.

So the PSOE has once more let women down. But, as recent mobilisations show, many Spanish women are not prepared to give up the fight, not just for abortion rights but to extend their rights at all levels.


Tamara Ruiz is a member of En lucha