Spain considers revamping abortion law

MADRID — Spain is set to change its 20-year-old abortion law but the proposed replacement does not seem to satisfy anyone.

The new law would offer women the unrestricted option of having an abortion within the first 14 weeks, a liberalization of the current law. Further, women older than 16 would not need parental consent, a provision that has generated anger among pro-life groups.

But it would set a limit of 22 weeks for abortions due to serious maternal health problems and fetal malformations — a change that pro-choice advocates say would make the new law more restrictive than its predecessor.

Abortions in Spain have doubled in the past 10 years, with a rate of 11.49 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2007, according to the Ministry of Health. Almost nine out of 10 abortions correspond to pregnancies of less than 12 weeks.

Under current law, a woman can have an abortion in three cases: rape (within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy), fetal health risk (within the first 22 weeks), and maternal physical or psychological health risk (no limit). The subjective nature of this last case is a crucial point of contention.

Most women in Spain allege psychological health problems as their reason for the abortion. Examination results are rarely questioned so mental health diagnoses are common, covering a woman mentally distraught over not having sufficient funds to provide for a newborn to a mother diagnosed with depression over the prospect of a malformed baby.

The new law would uphold those rights, but only when exercised in the first 22 weeks of pregnancy (except in cases of extraordinary physical health risk). That’s a few weeks short for doctors like Santiago Barambio, the president of ACAI, an association of abortion clinics calling for legal abortion through the 24th week — considered the minimum point of viability.

Less than 2 percent of abortions are performed beyond the 21st week but ACAI said those are the most dramatic cases, as they are often wanted pregnancies in an advanced stage that become unwanted with the late detection of serious fetal malformations.

The current mental health provision also creates legal dilemmas for doctors, and providing solid legal footing is a key aim of the new legislation.

Barambio said public hospitals don't want to perform abortions out of fear, for example, that a psychological diagnosis could be challenged and the abortion deemed illegal. Clinics can be shut down for performing illegal abortions and law enforcement raided several clinics last year amid charges that dozens of women had undergone illegal abortions.

Making abortion a free choice, with no questions asked, would eliminate that legal risk up to the 14th week of pregnancy.

Abortions are covered under the public health system, but almost 98 percent occur in private clinics. Barambio, director of Tutor Clinic in Barcelona, said thousands of women who cannot afford an abortion are tended for free at private clinics. (An abortion at 12 weeks with local anesthesia costs about 400 euros at private clinics.)

Pro-choice and pro-life groups oppose the planned legislation with equal vehemence, with the parental consent provision generating some of the most heated controversy. The bill will likely come before Parliament before the end of the year and it's possible that the parental consent provision will be scrubbed before then given the opposition that has already arisen.

Opponents of the measure argue that 16-year-olds cannot vote or buy tobacco, let alone make such a decision on their own. But supporters counter that they can have children or legally decide whether or not to have an operation. “It’s like letting them drive but not allowing them to contract auto insurance,” Barambio said. Presently, the legal age for consensual sex in Spain, even with adults, is 13.

Barambio, 63, has been performing abortions for more than 30 years. He said he began doing them illegally, when abortion was penalized with prison in Spain, and saw “women, in the 1960s, who came to the hospital bleeding to death because they had had something done with herbs, needles, or catheters.” He said a restriction on abortion would push women to go abroad if they have the financial means or do it clandestinely at home if they don’t.

Pro-life groups disagree, arguing that women simply need to be provided with choices. Carmen Garcia-Valdes, from Red Madre, a network that gives support to pregnant women as an alternative to abortion, said her organization sees a large number of women who continue with their pregnancies after learning of support initiatives and options like adoption. “We see women whose problems disappear the moment we congratulate them for their pregnancy,” Garcia-Valdes said.

More GlobalPost dispatches on reproductive rights:

Rekindling debate on Chile's abortion ban

Poland split over in vitro fertilization