In Spain, legal abortions but barriers remain

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Madrid (AFP) – When Spanish doctor Marta Vigara was 17 weeks pregnant, her water broke and she quickly realized her pregnancy prognosis was “very poor”.

A specialist in geriatrics working at the Clinico San Carlos hospital in Madrid, she immediately went to her colleagues in the gynecology department to undergo a therapeutic abortion.

Such a procedure can be performed when a woman’s life is in danger or the fetus has a serious abnormality.

But no doctor would do so on the grounds that there was still “a fetal heartbeat”, instead directing her to a private clinic.

“I arrived at the clinic bleeding, probably from a detached placenta,” the 37-year-old woman told AFP in her Madrid apartment where she recounted the ordeal she experienced in December 2020. .

Vigara later learned that the entire gynecology unit at Clinico San Carlos had declared themselves “conscientious objectors” against abortion.

Her experience illustrates how women in Spain still face obstacles when choosing to terminate a pregnancy, even though abortion was decriminalized in 1985.

This is a situation that the leftist government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wants to change.

There are no official statistics on the number of doctors who oppose abortion in Spain.

But according to the association of Spanish doctors OMC, “most” obstetrician-gynecologists who work in the public sector are “conscientious objectors”, a term coined by pacifists who refuse military service.

This explains why 84.5% of abortions performed in 2020 – the latest official figures available – were performed privately, with the state footing the bill.

In some areas, women travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion because there is no private clinic nearby and the local hospital will not perform the procedure.

In eight of Spain’s 50 provinces, no abortions have been performed since the procedure was decriminalized in 1985, according to the government.

He is preparing a law to guarantee access to the procedure in public hospitals, with the issue set to be a central theme of International Women’s Day marches in Spain on Tuesday.

Anti-abortion “ambulance”

Even when women can make it to a private clinic, they are sometimes confronted by anti-abortion activists along the way who spray them with uncomfortable questions or prayers.

Anti-abortion activists, like those seen here in Barcelona, ​​often set up shop outside abortion clinics Josep LAGO AFP/File

For the past decade, psychiatrist Jesus Poveda has met regularly with his team of “rescuers” outside the private Dator abortion clinic in Madrid to try to persuade women not to terminate their pregnancies.

They invite women to ride in a van equipped with an ultrasound device they call an “ambulance” to show them that what they are transporting “is a living being”, says Poveda, who teaches at the Autonomous University from Madrid.

A bill that passed its first reading in the Spanish parliament in February will ban such protests outside abortion clinics as “harassment”.

“We’ll keep coming,” says Poveda, who has pledged to “beat the law” if she gets final approval, as expected.

The Catholic Association of Propagandists (ACdP) launched an advertising campaign against the bill in January with posters in 33 cities saying, “Praying in front of abortion clinics is good.”

Waiver of parental consent

Sanchez’s government also wants to change the law so that minors aged 16 and 17 can terminate a pregnancy without parental consent, as is the case in Britain and France.

The issue of abortion is sparking many protests in Spain, like the one seen here, and will likely be a central theme during International Women's Day marches this week.
The issue of abortion is sparking many protests in Spain, like the one seen here, and will likely be a central theme during International Women’s Day marches this week. Pau BARRENA AFP/File

These young people can decide for themselves “to undergo a life or death operation, but parental consent is required to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy”, said Minister for Equality, Irene Montero, last month.

Spain, resolutely Catholic, decriminalized abortion in 1985 in the event of rape, if a fetus is malformed or if childbirth presents a serious physical or psychological risk for the mother.

The scope of the law was widened in 2010 by the previous socialist government to allow abortion on demand within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

But in 2015, a conservative People’s Party government tried to roll back the changes, but had to back down in the face of strong public opposition.

Instead, it introduced the parental consent requirement for minors that exists in most European countries.

Vigara hopes “things will change”.

“When they send you (to a private clinic) you feel a bit stigmatized as if you were doing something wrong. I felt very guilty and very miserable.”

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