TIME Spain

Spain’s Abortion Battle Pits Conservative Prime Minister Against Public Opinion

Thousands of people march to protest a a government plan to limit abortions in Madrid
Thousands of people march to protest a government plan to limit abortions in Madrid, Feb. 1, 2014. Andrea Comas / Reuters

Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is pushing legislation that would curb abortion, even when the majority in deeply Catholic Spain are in favor of it

It’s not every day that a cardinal on his way to celebrate Mass is surrounded by angry, topless women and pelted with panties. But that’s what happened on the evening of February 2, when Madrid’s highest-ranking clergyman, Antonio Maria Rouco, stepped into church. Five women from the feminist group Femen, their bare torsos painted with words that (in rather more colorful language) directed the cardinal to stay away from their reproductive organs, shouted “Abortion is sacred!” It was one more sign that, by proposing a law that would effectively ban abortion except in limited cases, the Spanish government has stirred up an issue that most in this country believed long resolved.

In late December, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s cabinet approved a bill that, if passed by Spain’s Parliament, would reverse the current law permitting women to freely abort up to the fourteenth week of pregnancy, and be one of the most restrictive in Europe. In the process, he has introduced another source of social conflict into a country already convulsed by protests over privatization and austerity measures and by a fierce independence challenge from one of its regions. The question is why.

Strictly banned under the Franco dictatorship that ended in 1975, abortion remained a crime for both the patient and the practitioner even under a 1985 law that allowed a woman to seek an abortion only if a doctor testified that having the child would cause her grave physical or psychological harm. That law, which prompted so many women to travel to London for the operation that regular charter flights were established for the purpose, remained in effect until 2010, when the socialist government replaced it with the current legislation permitting early-term abortion.

The new legislation won’t subject women who seek abortions to criminal sanctions (although it maintains them for practitioners), but it is otherwise a harsher version of the 1985 law: it bans abortion even in the case of fetal abnormality and requires women to find two doctors—neither of them affiliated with the clinic where she would have the abortion performed– willing to testify to the dangerous effects of carrying the baby to term. It also requires girls under the age of 18 to obtain parental permission before seeking to terminate their pregnancy. Justice Minister Alberto Ruíz Gallardon, who drafted the bill, explained it in terms of rights, arguing that it would “strengthen the protection of a woman’s greatest right, the right to maternity.” He also suggested that, by increasing birth rates, the ban an abortion would have “positive effects” on Spain’s still struggling economy.

For organizations that oppose abortion, like the Spanish Family Forum, the proposed legislation is welcome. “It doesn’t comply 100% with our ideals,” said President Benigno Blanco. “But it represents a substantial improvement over the present situation.”

Yet large portions of Spanish society disagree. In a January survey conducted by the polling organization Metroscopia for El País newspaper, 78% of Spaniards said that the reform was not necessary; and 86% maintained that women should be able to choose freely whether to terminate a pregnancy. Those sentiments were supported by 68% of those who voted for Rajoy’s governing Popular Party (PP).

Given the opposition, why do it? Pope Francis, who has surprised the world with his tolerant views on homosexuality and clerical celibacy has left no doubt that when it comes to abortion the Church’s position is unwavering: in a recent speech he called it “horrific.” Many here believe that the government is trying to placate Spain’s own church hierarchy, which is, in a saying beloved by Spaniards, more Papist than the Pope. “The bishops still have a lot of power within the PP,” says journalist Juan Bedoya, who covers religion for El País, Spain’s leading newspaper. “And the party hierarchy knows its best to be prudent with them. They don’t want them out there with their flocks in the street, protesting.”

Yet it’s unclear just how big a flock those bishops still have. “They’re preaching in a vacuum,” says Bedoya. “The immense majority of Spanish society opposes the penalization of abortion.” And as Gallardon’s own actions demonstrate—he performed gay marriages while he was mayor of Madrid—Spain is hardly the doctrinally uniform place it was just a few decades ago. Although 74% identify themselves as Catholics, more than 57% say they attend church “almost never.” Even among Catholics, the Metroscopia poll found that 50% supported a woman’s right to choose

If religion is not the motivating factor for the new law, politics may be.

For its entire history, the Popular Party has pursued a “big tent” model, uniting centrist and more rightwing sectors in the country’s sole conservative party. But regional issues of autonomy have worried some sectors that the government isn’t sufficiently protecting the central state, and as a result, the PP is currently facing its first challenge from a party further to its right, Vox, which launched in January. Add that development to a slew of corruption scandals and widespread discontent with the austerity measures the government has imposed in an effort to staunch the now 5-year-old economic crisis, and the party has reason to be worried. But it’s not clear that abortion is going to be the issue that keeps the faithful in line. Already, some politicians within the party have voiced criticisms of the bill, and it has provoked sharp backlash from the European parliament, which called on Spain to withdraw the legislation. Among the rank and file too, it has caused outrage; tens of thousands came from all over the country Saturday for a protest march in Madrid.

At his party’s national convention on Saturday, Gallardón maintained that he was undaunted by the backlash. Nothing, he said, would make him “abdicate the promise he made with the prime minister to fulfill our campaign platform and guarantee the rights of the unborn.”

But the demonstrators, many of them dressed in purple and bearing handwritten signs were having none of it. For Olvido Gracia, a restaurant owner in her 50s who traveled from the northern region of Asturias on a special “Freedom Train” organized for the occasion, the law was retrograde, and evidence that the church still had too much power in Spain. “This is Rouco’s fault,” she says, referring to the cardinal who would be the object of semi-nude protest the following night. “The church still controls a lot, and the PP owes them favors.” Re-joining her companions, she joined them in a chant. “Keep your rosaries out of my ovaries.”

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