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Spain considers revamping abortion law

Most women currently allege mental health problems as reason for aborting — a subjective diagnosis driving much of the debate.

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.