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A headline-grabbing protest in the Spanish parliament has brought women’s rights centre-stage in recession-hit Spain.
The disturbance last month, orchestrated by the feminist group Femen, graphically illustrated the anger felt by some over planned reforms to abortion law.
The centre-right government aims to reverse legislation introduced by its Socialist predecessor in 2010 – effectively limiting the circumstances in which abortion can be carried out.
It is a controversial proposal in a country where 120,000 terminations are performed annually, the highest rate in Europe.
A poll carried out by leading newspaper El Pais shows a big majority against the idea.
Isabel Serrano speaks for a campaign, “Decidir Nos Hace Libres”,that brings together some 250 groups opposed to changing the law.
“The way it is in the country, with the law as it is, simply the problems have been minimised. Women can have abortions in way that’s safer for their health and more fairly, because in each of the autonomous regions the state will pay for terminations. There hasn’t been a great rise in abortions – only a small increase. When something works well we can’t see any legal, health or social reasons to change reason to change the law,” she says.
The current law allows abortion on demand up to 14 weeks, and up to 22 weeks if the foetus appears seriously deformed., or if the mother’s physical or mental health are at risk.
The majority of terminations are carried out in private clinics and paid for by the state.
Under the government’s plans, the procedure could only be performed in cases of rape or where the mother’s health is seriously at risk, and up to a limit of 14 weeks.
For this private practitioner it is a backward step.
“For the first time in years the woman will have to abide by the decisions of others – a doctor, a judge, who have no regard for her personal convictions, or her intimate feelings. This bill will completely obliterate the free will of the woman.
Inevitably, this will create two different situations. The woman who has the economic means will go abroad where she’ll have an abortion with all legal and health guarantees. The woman who doesn’t have these means will be condemned to an illegal abortion, without legal or health guarantees,” says Dr. Diego Fernandez Alvarez.
Olga deals with patient relations at this private clinic. She herself had a termination in the 1980s, not long after it was legalised in Spain in cases of rape, deformation of the foetus, and physical or psychological risks to the health of the mother.
“With the information I had at the time I had lots of doubts. Will there be complications? What should I do? Will I be arrested? Will the whole world know? Will they see it in my face? After I’d had the operation, all I felt was huge relief,” she says.
Today’s law has tackled the legal uncertainties and social taboos, but fear of stigma still exists.
In another clinic a 15 year old girl and her mother have agreed to talk to us, their identities concealed.
Minors under 16 need the approval of parents or legal guardians to have an abortion.
But this girl tells us her mind is clear on the issue.
“I’m too young to have a child. It’s not always an easy decision, but for me it’s not a problem,” she says.
“It’s very hard for me to watch my daughter go for an abortion. But she’s at an age where she can’t, she doesn’t want to be a mother. So, I would have supported her whatever decision she took,” says her mother.
A woman’s rights over her own body is not a convincing argument for this couple who belong to an anti-abortion group and who have seven children themselves.
“We kept an echography of a baby that Esperanza lost at two and half months. We told our kids, it was a little brother or sister, that – we didn’t know if it was a boy or girl, but that it was in heaven now, with God. We keep it with the other kids’ photos,” says lawyer Luis Gutierrez de Cabiedes.
For Luis and his wife no arguments – legal, health, financial – can justify abortion, For them the government’s proposed reforms do not go far enough.
“In Spain abortion must be an offence, and should not be decriminalised. The mother always needs help; even more when she’s pregnant! Because she’s carrying a human being. And if they really don’t want the baby they can give it up for adoption. But really she can’t think of killing her baby!” says Luis’s wife.
“With abortion we put in process the extermination of our own civilisation. It’s one of the greatest mistakes our society makes,” insists Luis.
The ultimate target for the Right to Live campaign is zero abortions.
However its coordinator says the government should at least outlaw terminations in the case of foetal deformities.
And it should put into place a national adoption scheme, and help for single pregnant women facing social exclusion.
“For us it seems like opposing the right of a child to life poses a social problem. It is unfair. Spain spends 40 or 50 million a year to pay for abortions, and not a single euro to help pregnant women with their problems,” says the co-ordinator for Derecho a Vivir Gàdor Joya Verde.
A recent study suggests more than a quarter of Spanish abortions are for economic reasons.
Helping young mothers and pregnant women is the mission of the private Madrina foundation. It offers food aid, help with housing, or finding a job. It also has a “godmother” system for expectant mothers.
“The first aid cut in hard times is always aid for mothers. And that has produced a global crisis today. I believe that the future begins by helping these mothers, these young people, to get jobs, housing, and training,” the the Foundation’s President Conrado Giménez Agrela.
In a class for young mothers with one or more children the hope is they will qualify for university. The foundation has alllowed them to escape poverty, which for most of them is no reason to abort. But opinions soften when presented with other reasons to abort.
“I said at the start that if I fell pregnant young I’d abort, because there’s a time for everything and I have lots to do before that, like study for example. But I don’t know…once I was pregnant I felt it, and I couldn’t do it. But I do strongly support abortion in the case of a problem birth. When I was tested for Downs syndrome it was very clear to me that abortion was the solution,” said one woman.
And what about in a case of rape?
“I wouldn’t keep it”, says another woman, “If someone has hurt me or made me suffer I wouldn’t think about it twice.”
Access to abortion is far from uniform, or unanimous around Europe. National laws vary, and the European Parliament has just stepped back from voting on whether or not to recognise abortion as a fundamental human right.