Friday, January 31, 2014

Spain’s Alarming Abortion Debate

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s proposal to enact some of the toughest abortion restrictions in Europe has exposed his already unpopular government to a building political backlash and criticism from the European Parliament, while reinvigorating his Socialist opponents and opening divisions in his own conservative Popular Party.

On Sunday, demonstrators gathered in downtown Madrid to protest the government’s health care cuts and the abortion proposal, which was introduced in December and would allow the termination of a pregnancy only if it was the result of rape or if having the baby would significantly endanger the mother’s health. It would not allow abortions if the fetus was deformed.

“Those who give birth should be deciding,” said Pilar Gómez, an administrator of the Los Yébenes health care center in Madrid. “After all the advances that we had made, we’re now being taken right back to the days of Franco.”

The current abortion law, adopted under the previous Socialist administration, allows women to end a pregnancy within the first 14 weeks and beyond that period in cases of life-threatening problems related to the fetus.
The debate in Spain began about the same time that a law in Ireland, another Roman Catholic country, set out for the first time the conditions under which abortions would be allowed. The Irish law, which was prompted in part by the death of a woman who was refused an abortion, allows termination of a pregnancy in cases of a threat to the mother’s life. It leaves Malta as the only European Union country that has a complete ban on abortion.
On Wednesday, Elena Valenciano, the deputy leader of the Socialist Party, argued that Mr. Rajoy’s government, which up to now had been focused on Spain’s ailing economy, was also taking a “real step back in history” with a proposed law that she described as an affront to women.
She predicted that the law would turn on Mr. Rajoy by dividing his party rather than strengthening his electoral appeal among conservatives. Already, some senior members of his Popular Party have urged the prime minister to soften the legislation.
Still, Benigno Blanco, the president of the Spanish Family Forum, an association that has campaigned against abortion and represents about four million families, welcomed the legislation as “a very important step” that “should guarantee Spain becomes the first country in Western Europe to prioritize the right to life and to fight back against the social normalization of abortion.”
The abortion debate has transcended Spain’s borders. Protests were recently held outside Spain’s embassy in Paris, and France’s minister for women’s affairs, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said it was “terrible to see Spain about to take a step back on the right to decide over one’s own body.”
Last week, the European Parliament held a heated session over what Spain’s planned U-turn would mean for the rest of the Continent. In Portugal, news media have started speculating about whether the country’s abortion clinics could cope with an influx of women from neighboring Spain.
Even as left-leaning politicians and women’s associations have expressed dismay at the draft law, the government has insisted that it was merely following through on Mr. Rajoy’s campaign pledges from 2011, when the Popular Party swept into office after voters punished the Socialists for their economic mismanagement. Spain pulled out of its two-year recession in the third quarter of 2013, but still struggles with an unemployment rate of 26 percent and anemic domestic consumption.

Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party has a comfortable majority in Parliament. But the Socialists have urged the government to allow voting on the abortion law to take place by secret ballot, to help encourage dissenting conservative lawmakers to break ranks.

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