Spain’s proposed abortion reforms: a small yet welcome step


After a court ruling in Poland imposed a near-total ban on abortions in October 2020, the pro-life versus pro-choice debate has been pushed back into the European spotlight. In Spain, a country which shares Poland’s ties with Catholicism, abortion also remains a controversial political issue. Yet there is hope in Spain that more women may soon be able to exercise autonomy over their own bodies. Although abortion is legal in all cases up until 14 weeks, 16 and 17-year-olds currently have to obtain parental consent in order to access a termination. The coalition government is hoping to change that.

A brief history of Spain’s abortion legislation

Spanish legislation on abortion has typically fluctuated between periods of liberal and draconian reforms, reflecting the divides that remain entrenched in Spanish society. Before 1985, abortion was outlawed in all cases, with the notable exception of Catalonia during the Civil War, when it was under the control of the Second Republic. This limited respite was short-lived, however, and abortion remained illegal until after the transition to democracy. In the 1985 act, abortion was legalised only in three very limited circumstances: in the case of rape, if the mother’s health was at risk, and in the case of foetal deformities. 

The 1985 law remained unchanged until relatively recently, when the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero brought a new law into force in 2010, which largely remains in place today. This allows women to freely request abortion up until 14 weeks of pregnancy, and a termination is also possible in the later stages if a woman’s mental or physical health is deemed to be at risk, or in the case of foetal defects. 

Just a year later, however, Mariano Rajoy of the centre-right Partido Popular was elected with a manifesto which promised to drastically restrict women’s access to free abortions. In 2013, PP proposed to limit abortions to cases of rape, or when the mother’s health was at serious risk. Not only would this have left women unable to freely request an abortion within the first few weeks of pregnancy, but the criteria upon which a doctor could perform an abortion would have been even more limited than with the 1985 law. Thankfully, these plans were dropped in 2014, after they met with public outrage and dissent from within Rajoy’s own party. But his government did amend the law in 2015 to prevent 16 and 17-year-olds from accessing an abortion without parental consent. It is beyond reasonable doubt that this amendment forced some pregnant 16 and 17-year-olds into having children whom they did not want, for an abortion could not be carried out if their parents or guardians did not agree to the procedure.

Today’s proposed reforms

Spain’s Socialist coalition government is now seeking to overturn the draconian measures introduced by the last opposition government. In October 2020, the Equalities Minister, Irene Montero, announced that they were seeking to scrap the requirement for 16 and 17-year-olds to seek parental permission. Montero announced that these reforms were being proposed ‘with the aim that every woman has the right to decide over her own body’, and she stated that other measures would be introduced, such as placing greater emphasis on sex education, which she described as a ‘vaccine’ in the fight against gender violence. 

As of yet, there remains no fixed date for these reforms to be debated, and the path to their approval will not be easy. Montero is a member of the junior coalition partner Podemos, and so she will have to negotiate with the PSOE-controlled Ministry of Health. Moreover, the proposals would then need to achieve an absolute majority in Parliament of 176 votes in favour. 

Opposition to the proposal

The far-right party Vox has already announced their opposition to the new reforms, and the more conservative sectors of Spanish society – especially those affiliated with the Catholic church – are also likely to express their outrage, as they have done in the past. In a country that is widely recognised as having a real problem with gender-based violence, the path to ensuring that a woman’s right to choose is upheld is never likely to be smooth.

In 2017, the infamous La manada (‘wolf pack’) case made headlines around the world, when a Spanish court cleared five men of gang-raping an 18-year-old woman. As the victim did not fight back during the horrific attack, the court deemed no violence or intimidation to have been used, which are requisites for bringing a ruling of rape under existing Spanish law. Although this judgement was overturned by the Supreme Court of Spain in 2019, with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez promising a much-needed overhaul of the existing legislation, many women are left rightfully feeling that they lacked adequate protection from sexual violence.

Feminist groups have long regarded the continuing furore over Spain’s abortion laws as symptomatic of the wider gender inequality within society. Indeed, public opinion is still divided over whether women should have free access to a termination. The Pro-Rights platform, an umbrella group for 62 organisations across Spain, estimates that around 8,000 women have been subjected to harassment in Spain since the 2010 law was passed.  In February 2020, El País reported on the routine harassment of women outside an abortion clinic in Madrid, where those entering the clinic would be met with cries of ‘murderer’ and told that they are sinners – a phenomenon that continues in Catholic countries such as Poland.  In Spain as in other countries, the religious dimension to the debate over abortion is still very much in play. 

The global fight for a more equal future

Spain’s abortion laws are not the most liberal in the world, nor are they the most restrictive. In the UK, women can freely access abortion up to 24 weeks, and even women under the age of 16 can access a termination without parental permission, if they are considered as being able to consent to the treatment. On the other side of the spectrum, the governments of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Malta have implemented total bans on abortion, with horrific consequences.

In El Salvador, women are not only forced to carry a child to term even in the case of rape, but the state now actively prosecutes some of these women who go on to miscarry. This is particularly appalling, for it signals to a wholly misogynistic and patriarchal societal context, whereby women are doubly violated. A woman can be violated first by the man who attacks her, and then by a legal system that not only denies her justice, but actively punishes her for a bodily event she has no control over.

In October, the Polish courts ruled in favour of a near-total ban on abortion. This has rightly faced public outrage across the globe, which leaves us with a deeply uncomfortable reality: for years, the international community and particularly the mainstream media have appeared content to ignore the suffering of women in Latin America and in other communities of colour. The fact that it has taken a crackdown on abortion rights in a white, European country to energise the media is deeply problematic, and reminds us that the struggle for racial justice and gender equality is still very far from over.

Although the latest proposal by Spain’s Socialist government would only enact a small change to the existing law, it is a significant and much needed one. In this global landscape of misogyny and denial of women’s rights, it is a welcome glimmer of hope. Spain may very soon be allowing more women to exercise greater autonomy over their own bodies, but there is still a very long way to go before all women have safe and legal access to abortion.

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