Mon, Apr 13, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Spain's PM takes abortion reform to the next level

The Catholic Church has not been thrilled with the Zapatero government’s reforms, but the latest change is set to start a brawl

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MADRID

One day last month, Sister Maria Victoria Vindel gave her 15-year-old students a shockingly graphic lecture on reproductive health: PowerPoint slides of dismembered and disfigured fetuses interspersed with biblical quotations and pictures of a grinning Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

“They laugh while many innocent children will die,” one of the captions read. The presentation ended with the message, “No to abortion, yes to life!”

Vindel's class at Purisima Concepcion y Santa Maria Micaela, a parochial school in Logrono in northern Spain, is the most controversial episode yet in an increasingly contentious debate about Zapatero's plans to ease Spain's restrictive abortion law.

The class was described by the mother of a student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of possible repercussions for her child, and by Inmaculada Ortega, a Socialist lawmaker who spoke to several students and their parents.

The school, where Vindel is headmistress, refused to comment on the slide show, which appeared to be downloaded from the Internet. The regional government, run by the opposition Popular Party, sent inspectors to the school, a Catholic institution that is financed partly by the state and partly by the parents. The government called the presentation “inappropriate” and said that it could constitute “moral aggression.”

Since he became prime minister in 2004, Zapatero has pushed an ambitious series of reforms, prying the social fabric of Spain from the centuries-old grip of the Roman Catholic Church. The Socialist government has legalized gay marriage, eased divorce law and expanded the rights of transsexuals.

Now Zapatero has ventured onto even more incendiary social terrain, the divide over abortion; and if he was looking for a battle, he found one. As Spain celebrated Holy Week, the clergy rolled out a vigorous protest from pulpits, billboards and the hooded ranks of traditional Easter processions.

Abortion is technically a crime in Spain, though a law introduced in 1985, 10 years after Franco's death, permits abortions under certain circumstances. In practice, however, abortions are widely available because doctors cite a mental health exception.

The current law allows terminations in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy only in cases of rape and in the first 22 weeks in cases of congenital disorder. However, a woman can abort at any time if her mental or physical health is at risk — an exception cited in about 97 percent of abortions in Spain, according to Empar Pineda, spokeswoman for the Spanish Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics.

“Our abortion law is anachronistic,” said Bibiana Aido, who as minister for equality oversees the rights of women and minorities.

“It is the law we were able to pass 23 years ago, but it leaves a lot to be desired,” she said by telephone. “Our society has advanced enormously since then.”

Aido said that while Spain boasted equality laws that were among the most progressive in Europe, the country was a laggard when it came to abortion. First trimester abortion is virtually unrestricted in most European countries, though it is still a crime in Ireland. Two years ago, Portugal made it available on request in the first 10 weeks. Italy’s 1978 law permits abortion in a broad range of cases in the first 90 days.

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