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ABORTION

FOCUS: How women in Spain face barriers despite abortion being legal

When Spanish doctor Marta Vigara was 17 weeks pregnant, her waters broke and she quickly realised the prognosis for her pregnancy was "very bad".

FOCUS: How women in Spain face barriers despite abortion being legal
Geriatric doctor Marta Vigara, who could not have a therapeutic abortion at the hospital where she works, poses at her home in Madrid on February 10, 2022. - Women in Spain still face obstacles when they choose to terminate a pregnancy even though abortion was decriminalised in 1985, a situation Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government wants to change. No official statistics exist on how many objecting doctors exist in Spain. But according to the Spanish Doctors Order the "majority" of obstetrician-gynaecologists who work in the public sector are "conscientious objectors", a term coined by pacifists who refuse military service. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

A geriatric specialist working at Madrid’s Clínico San Carlos hospital, she immediately went to her colleagues in the gynaecology department to have a therapeutic abortion.

Such a procedure can be carried out when a woman’s life is in danger or the foetus has a severe abnormality.

But no doctor would do it on grounds there was still “a foetal heartbeat”, directing her to a private clinic instead.

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

Vigara later learnt that the entire gynaecology 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 decriminalised in 1985.

It’s a situation Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s leftist government wants to change.

There are no official statistics on how many doctors object to abortion in Spain.

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

That explains why 84.5 percent of abortions carried out in 2020 – the last available official figures – were done privately, with the state footing the bill.

In some regions, women travel hundreds of kilometres for 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 abortion has been carried out since the procedure was decriminalised in 1985, the government says.

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

Anti-abortion ‘ambulance’

Even when women can reach a private clinic, they are sometimes confronted by anti-abortion activists en route who pepper them with uncomfortable questions or prayers.

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

A member (L) of “40 dias por la vida” (40 days for life), an international anti-abortion organisation that campaigns against abortion through prayer, speaks with a woman outside the Emece private hospital in Barcelona on October 28, 2021. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

They invite women to enter a van equipped with an ultrasound machine which they call an “ambulance” to show them that what they’re carrying “is a living being”, says Poveda, who teaches at Madrid’s Autonomous University.

A draft law that passed its first reading in Spain’s parliament in February will ban such protests outside abortion clinics as “harassment”.

“We will keep coming,” says Poveda, who has vowed to “get around the law” if it gets final approval, as expected.

The Catholic Association of Propagandists (ACdP) launched an ad campaign against the bill in January with posters in 33 cities reading: “Praying in front of abortion clinics is great.”

Dropping parental consent

Sanchez’s government also wants to modify the law so minors of 16 and 17 can terminate a pregnancy without their parents’ consent, as is the case in Britain and France.

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

Staunchly Catholic Spain decriminalised abortion in 1985 in cases of rape, if a foetus is malformed or if a birth poses a serious physical or psychological risk to the mother.

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

But in 2015, a conservative Popular 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 which exists in most European nations.

Vigara is hoping “things will change”.

“When they send you away (to a private clinic), you feel a bit stigmatised as if you’re doing something wrong. I felt very guilty and very miserable.”

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WOMEN'S RIGHTS

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.




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