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HEALTH

What you need to know about Spain’s plan to change its abortion laws

In Spain women can get an abortion for free in all public hospitals up until 14 weeks, no questions asked. But the reality is that many doctors refuse to perform them. The Spanish government is revising its laws to make sure it is enforced across the country.

What you need to know about Spain’s plan to change its abortion laws
Anti-abortion supporters take part in a march in Madrid in 2014. In Spain women have the right to abortions up to the 14th week of their pregnancy, but many doctors across the country refuse to perform the procedure. Photo by DANI POZO / AFP

Under the current legislation introduced by the previous Socialist government in 2010, women in Spain have the right to abortions up to the 14th week of their pregnancy, which is standard in much of Europe.

They also have the legal right to abort up to the 22nd week of pregnancy in cases where the mother’s health is at risk or the foetus has serious deformities.

‘Conscientious objectors’

However, in practice this law translates into a very different reality.  

Many doctors across Spain refuse to practice abortions, calling themselves “conscientious objectors”.

So many doctors deny the procedure across the country, that in five out of the 17 autonomous regions in Spain, no public hospitals offer abortions, according to data from the Health Ministry

This causes stark regional inequalities, forcing thousands of women to either travel to another part of the country, or pay for one in a private clinic, despite the 2010 law stating that “all women should benefit from equal access to abortion regardless of where they reside”.

According to the data, the provinces of Teruel, Ávila, Palencia, Segovia, Zamora, Cuenca, Toledo and Cáceres have not performed a single abortion in the past 30 years.

And, another even more revealing statistic: in 2019, 85 per cent of abortions took place in private clinics.

The map below shows the provinces that never perform abortions in red, the ones where it has varied over the years in orange, and the ones where they have always been available in green.

READ ALSO: Why does Spain top Europe’s Covid vaccination league table?

Law reform

The minister of equality, Irene Montero, has proposed a reform of the current law that would limit doctors being able to refuse the procedure.

“Conscientious objection cannot be an obstacle for women to exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy,” Montero said in a tweet. “We must reform the law to regulate it and make sure abortion is guaranteed in the public health system.”

Montero said the draft law would be ready in December after a consultation process.

However, others have said doctors should not be forced to perform abortions.

The president of Madrid’s regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, said she would not force “any doctor in Madrid’s public health system to practice an abortion against their will” because doctors study medicine “to save lives and not to do the opposite”.

Conservatism

The situation shows abortion remains a dividing issue in Spain, where a large part of the conservative population is still opposed to a law that was introduced over a decade ago.

The former conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had promised to tighten Spain’s abortion law before he came into power in 2011.

However he was forced to drop the plans in 2014 due to disagreement within his Popular Party (PP). This angered many Catholic and other pro-life groups.

The reform would have ended women’s rights to freely terminate their pregnancies up until the 14th weeks. 

In 2015 Rajoy’s government passed another reform requiring girls aged 16 and 17 to get their parents’ consent if they wished to terminate a pregnancy. But the measure failed to pacify pro-life campaigners.

Montero also announced plans to repeal the 2015 reform as part of the draft law.

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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