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.
The new Spanish legislation, which the government is in the process of drafting, would make abortion available on request in the first 14 weeks, and it would allow women as young as 16 to seek one without parental consent.
Also under the law, a woman could abort in the first 22 weeks in the case of congenital disorder and after that if continuing the pregnancy put her life at risk. The mental health exception would disappear.
The Church is outraged. In several cities, the Catholic brotherhoods that mark Holy Week with solemn processions have pinned white ribbons and tiny footprints to their robes in protest.
Bishops called on people to resist the reform during sermons on Palm Sunday, according to news reports from several cities.
Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, archbishop of Toledo, said abortion was “against man and against the designs of God,” according to a transcript of his sermon on the Toledo Diocese Web site.
“We truly cannot give in to this,” he said of the new legislation. “It is not a question of politics; it is a question of humanity.”
The Spanish Episcopal Conference has rented billboards in three dozen cities on which they displayed a protected Iberian lynx next to a crawling baby with the words, “What about me? Protect my life.”
Anti-abortion groups and conservative regional governments have joined the protest. The regional government of Valencia, led by the Popular Party, is preparing an anti-abortion law that would, among other things, promote a network of surrogate families who would take in or support single mothers-to-be.
Thousands of people in Spain and Latin America turned out on March 29 for a protest organized by HazteOir, a conservative advocacy group. The group’s president, Ignacio Arsuaga, said the government should enforce the existing law rather than loosen it.
“This government likes to say it defends women's rights,” he said by telephone. “But women who abort suffer physically and psychologically.”
Aido, the equality minister, said the new abortion law would be “modern and sensible,” allowing women full legal security in the first 14 weeks and leaving less room for bending of the law further into pregnancy. The new rules would guarantee access to abortions in the public health sector by limiting the scope for doctors to object on the basis of conscience, she said. Currently, 97 percent of abortions are performed by private clinics, which are reimbursed by the state.
However, some women and gynecologists say the proposed law does not resolve the question of late-term abortion.
A storm erupted in late 2007 over allegations that some clinics were using the mental health clause for late-term abortions of healthy fetuses. The allegations led to the arrest of a gynecologist in Barcelona and raids on two clinics in Madrid. Since then, clinics have virtually halted late-term abortions, said Pineda, the clinics association spokeswoman, who works at one of the clinics that was raided.
Gemma Botifoll, who decided to terminate her pregnancy after 34 weeks when she discovered her baby had a severe congenital disorder, said she was turned away from clinics in Barcelona, Madrid and Seville. Botifoll had to drive hundreds of kilometers to Reims, France, where she had an abortion in a public hospital. The Spanish health system paid for it.
“The Spanish doctors told me my son would not live for a year, that he would be blind, that his body would not grow, that he would be mentally disabled,” she said in a telephone interview. “But they said they could do nothing to help me.”
Critics say the new law, which would allow a termination after 22 weeks only if the mother's life was at risk or if the fetus were not viable, would be too restrictive.
“How can it be that in Spain we allow transsexuals to get a sex change, that gay people can marry, but we don't allow a woman to abort a child who has a severe disorder?” Botifoll asked. “That I should have to cross a border like a criminal to get a termination — that's shameful.”
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