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Sexual and Reproductive Health Situation Report: SPAIN

April 9, 2009

Welcome to the first installment of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Situation Report! This monthly column will highlight advances or setbacks in SRHR policy internationally.

In this month’s SRHS Sit Report we’re highlighting Spain.The Spanish Parliament is currently considering legislation that would decriminalize abortion.  The law under consideration is a pretty good one, too.  It’s still being drafted, but public statements by the left-leaning administration have been emphasizing women’s rights and autonomy.  In a lot of countries with restrictive abortion laws arguments are focused around the public health consequences of unsafe clandestine abortion.  Although often that’s necessary because of the social climate, instrumental arguments are always more vulnerable to future challenge than are arguments based on intrinsic value.  And women’s autonomy is a pretty intrinsic value.

The proposed legislation would bring Spain up to date and into line with the vast majority of European countries and would answer the call of the Council of Europe to “decriminalize abortion within reasonable gestational limits” in its recent Resolution on Access to Safe and Legal Abortion passed in April 2008.  The Resolution was an important recognition of abortion rights as human rights at the regional level in Europe, and explicitly recognized the link between the criminalization of abortion and maternal mortality.

Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero‘s socialist administration introduced draft legislation in early 2007 (full text in Spanish Available here).   Since 1985, abortion has been legal in Spain under limited circumstances: to preserve the life, health or mental health of the pregnant woman, for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and in cases of fetal impairment.  Under those indications, has was mostly been pretty available—depending on where you live in Spain. In fact, until 2007 when abortion was decriminalized up to 10 weeks gestation in Portugal, a lot of Portuguese women traveled to neighboring Spain to obtain safe abortion services.

Part of the reason the reform was necessary is that although abortion services are fairly widely available in some areas, the legislation has been unevenly applied in Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions. In some areas providers and even women have been prosecuted for the crime of abortion.  In 2007, police raided clinics in Barcelona and Madrid, and in some areas have even gone to women’s homes.  In one case, police got an anonymous tip of a “murder” in progress and burst into a hospital where a woman was in the middle of a procedure and interrogated her.

Since it was instituted in 1985, Spain’s abortion law has been challenged several times.  In 1991, the Spanish Supreme Court dismissed charges against a woman who had undergone an abortion, saying that forcing her to give birth would have constituted a violation of her right to the free development of her person.  Since that decision, there have been several attempts to liberalize abortion law, but none have made it through the Parliament.

Over the last year, the Parliament has been considering the current proposed legislation and hearing evidence on the issue. It requested testimony from a panel of experts which included bioethicists, academics, and medical and legal experts. They also convened a parliamentary sub-commission on the legislation with a mandate to research the implications of the law including international human rights standards and European best practices.

Equality Minister Bibiana Aído Almagro

Minister of Equality Bibiana Aído Almagro

According to Minister of Equality Bibiana Aído Almagro (who’s a vocal advocate for women’s rights), the Ministry is currently in the process of amending draft legislation.  Word has it the legislation will likely decriminalize abortion upon request up to the 14th week of gestation and abortion of pregnancies that present grave risk to the health of the pregnant woman, or in cases of fetal malformation, up to 22 weeks.  Outside these indications, abortion would remain penalized, although Aído Almagro has made it clear that the government has no intention of imprisoning women for the crime of abortion.

Of course, the Catholic church is fighting back.  Right-wing voices have emphasized that the law may allow young women over the age of 16 to seek abortion services without notifying their parents, and have said that the law would make abortion into “just another form of contraception.” Bishops are calling for a “massive mobilization” against Zapatero’s administration.  The church’s arguments are familiar; and include the same old misinformation (actually abortion is not contraception, and numerous studies have shown that legality does not affect the number of abortions that take place—just how safe they are) and attacks on women’s ability to define their own lives and make their own decisions.


Lawmaker Carmen Montón Giménez

Socialist Parliamentarian Carmen Montón Giménez (who is also the spokesperson for the Socialist Group within the Parliamentary Equality Commission) is another fabulous feminist (with a blog).  She recently said to the plenary of the Parliament that the decriminalization of abortion for three indications (the current law) “was an advance and a social success, but did not recognize the capacity and will of women to decide about their own life and their own maternity.” (Full transcript in Spanish available here.) The new law would put the decision in the hands of the pregnant woman. Hopefully by the summer, Spain will join the growing list of nations that recognize women’s human rights and autonomy by passing holistic legislation decriminalizing abortion on demand.

Brook Elliott-Buettner is a freelance human rights policy researcher and writer living in New York. More information and work is available at

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