Spain’s Socialist prime minister has irked his natural enemies on the right and in the Catholic Church by legalizing gay marriage and instituting fast-track divorce. Now he has hit a raw nerve even among his supporters with a proposal to let 16-year-olds get abortions without parental consent.
The debate is harsh and emotional, showing that for all the changes Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has introduced with his trailblazing social agenda since taking power in 2004, abortion remains ever sensitive in a country where most people call themselves Catholic, even if few churches are full on Sundays.
Liberalizing teen abortion is part of a broader reform proposed for Spain’s abortion law, the main thrust of which is to allow the procedure with no restrictions up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy.
The government gave the bill preliminary approval in May and parliament is expected to take it up in the fall. Zapatero probably has the votes to get it passed. However, the outcry on the teenager issue may force him to backtrack.
Under the current law, Spanish women can in theory go to jail for getting an abortion outside certain strict limits — up to week 12 in case of rape and week 22 if the fetus is malformed. But abortion is in effect widely available because women can assert mental distress as sole grounds for having an abortion, regardless of how late the pregnancy is.
Zapatero is seeking to deepen his mark on Spanish society.
What he’s proposing wipes away the threat of imprisonment and says abortion is a woman’s right.
“That is a qualitative change in Spanish culture and politics,” said Javier del Rey, a professor of political communications at Complutense University in Madrid. “Something that had been a crime is transformed into a right.”
The UK, France and Germany already allow minors to get abortions without parental permission. But in Spain it’s the issue that is dominating the debate.
The conservative Popular Party asks why a girl who cannot legally buy alcohol can have an abortion without asking her parents.
“The inconsistency is crushing,” lawmaker Sandra Moneo wrote in the newspaper El Pais.
“No father or mother can understand the idea of a minor going through that trauma without the advice, support and opinion of her parents,” Moneo said.
Zapatero’s camp counters by noting that 16-year-old Spaniards can choose to have open-heart surgery or chemotherapy without parental consent, but not an abortion.
Conservatives were enraged when Bibiana Aido, the minister of equality, said abortion was no bigger an issue than breast enlargement.
Socialists saw red when Antonio Canizares, a Spanish cardinal who holds a key position at the Vatican, seemed to play down a report detailing decades of sexual and other abuse of children by religious orders in Ireland and said abortion was worse.