Aser García Rada: Abortion in Spain

Aser García Rada_BMJThis year´s Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, celebrated on 28 September, was especially welcomed in Spain. Earlier that week, Spain’s prime minister and leader of the conservative People´s Party (PP), Mariano Rajoy, announced the withdrawal of his plans to toughen up current abortion law. That law, which was passed by the socialists in 2010, established the right to abort on demand up to 14 weeks of gestation and under certain circumstances up to the 22nd week of gestation, as is common in most EU countries.

Under Rajoy´s proposed changes, abortion would have been legal only up to 12 weeks in cases of rape and up to 22 weeks in cases of serious risk to the mother’s mental or physical health, in line with the tightest European legislations of Malta, Poland, or Ireland. A popular satiric website even ran a spoof story, which had Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, congratulating the Spanish government on the proposal. Nevertheless, growing discontent, according to inner PP polls, with what would have become the most restrictive legislation of our democracy; the two million PP voters lost during the last EU elections; and national elections running in 2015 have all been key to the plans being scrapped.

Three hours after the announcement was made, the minister of justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who had put all his support behind the launch of what he called “the most advanced and progressive law done by the government,” became the first member of the cabinet to resign. Two days after this, he signed up as part of the Consultative Council of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, a body that meets on Wednesdays to countersign reports worked out by public servants. Despite the rate of abortions having dropped by 5% from 2011 to 2012, Ruiz-Gallardón had strongly and repeatedly insisted that a new law was necessary since taking office.

The law’s withdrawal is considered by some analysts to be one of the most prominent failures of the current government—although several other issues could compete for this distinction. The PP had made it a flagship policy during the last elections. However, as often happens in politics, things didn’t end up as promised. In a failed attempt to save face in front of extremist pro-life groups that feel “betrayed,” the law will be slightly modified so that parental consent will again be mandatory for girls aged 16 and 17 requesting abortion—something that was not compulsory under current law.

But unlike other political promises, such as more jobs, this failure has been broadly accepted. Civil rights groups and all opposition parties have welcomed it. As has the Spanish Medical Colleges Organisation (Organización Médica Colegial) and the Spanish Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (Sociedad Española de Ginecología y Obstetricia).

In fact, the release of the law had been delayed several times owing to growing opposition, which came even from within the PP. The polemic grew when it was known that abortion wouldn’t be allowed even in cases of severe foetal malformations. All political opposition and most citizens—including many PP voters—were against such an “advanced and progressive” law. Regional PP leaders facing local elections next May were also worried. To try and reassure his own colleagues, Ruiz-Gallardón announced a list of malformations for which abortion may have been allowed, but many PP members considered it a distasteful subject to vote on.

I have my own doubts regarding abortion in certain situations. But who am I to have a say on the decisions of another person? I think that, in fields affecting such deep moral values, people should be able to decide within a reasonable range of freedom.

Last but not least, we should ask why many Spanish women are having fewer children than they would wish for. According to the latest data I found, in 1995 the average number of children Spanish women desired was calculated to be 2.2. However, since 1990 Spain’s birth rate has remained among the world’s lowest, with the average ranging over the years from 1.1 to 1.4 children for every woman. This average was highest in 2008 (coinciding with the Spanish economic boom) and subsequently fell as austerity loomed.

Owing to the current decline in immigration and increase in emigration, the number of women of childbearing age has dropped since 2009, but our precarious policies on maternity support and high unemployment rate also play a part. According to a 2012 report from Redmadre, a foundation dedicated to assisting vulnerable mothers, out of 24 EU countries assessed on their policies to support mothers, Spain only reached 18th place. This was mainly because of the scarce number of weeks Spain allows for maternity leave and the limited economic benefits it gives for having and caring for children. In Redmadre’s 2013 annual report, an increased number of Spanish mothers considering the abortion of their second or third child cited the lack of financial resources as the reason.

Abortion is one of those issues that will always be around, but which legislators fear to tackle. Spain’s current abortion law is not perfect—it never could be—and, although some loose ends could be tied up, only extremists on both sides disagree in the essentials. If we really want to see a decrease in abortion rates, the answer may lie in improving working and social conditions (currently the worst in more than a decade), and tackling growing inequality.

Aser García Rada is a paediatrician who currently works at the primary care centre Las Calesas in Madrid, Spain. He is also a freelance journalist.

Competing interests: The authors have no competing interests to declare.