Published on 6 Mar 2014

Battle for abortion rights in Spain

Flanked by giant barrels the women laugh, sing and down their cider the Asturian way: single inches of flat, green liquid.

It is the festival of comadres – the “day of the godmother”. It had to be celebrated in secret during the days of Franco but is now an excuse for mums and grandmothers to dress up and go slightly crazy.

This is a generation that thought they’d fought and won the basic battles for women’s rights. The younger women here have grown up in one of the most socially liberal cultures in Europe. But once the music starts, their anger is palpable.

“The minister’s a fascist,” they sing; “a butcher from the Tea Party and the Vatican… Rajoy has taken our bodies hostage, with a law that shamelessly denigrates women”. (It sounds better in Spanish.)

The cause is the new abortion law, proposed by Spain’s conservative government. It has passed its first parliamentary hurdle and would allow abortions only in case of rape or danger to life. The current law allows abortion on demand up to 14 weeks, and easy access to the morning after pill.

The women here, at this cider press in the Asturian port of Gijon, see the move not just as an attack on reproductive rights but as the end of a deal whereby the Catholic half of Spain agreed to leave the liberal and leftist half alone, in return for a whole series of compromises made at the fall of fascism.

“We can’t go back,” is the theme of most of the conversations I have here. For three years politics in Spain were dominated by the banking crisis and austerity.

The abortion law comes alongside laws criminalizing protest, allowing spot fines for insulting the police or indeed insulting Spain. And though the new law may play to the wishes of the Partido Popular’s core voters, 80 per cent of Spaniards polled – including many conservatives – consistently oppose the new restructions on abortion.

Asturias became the centre of resistance after women in the old industrial port of Gijon decided to hire a train and demonstrate in Madrid.

It catalysed movements that had been building here in many cities: now there are demos at airports – women in 1960s gear re-enacting the flights abroad women had to take to secure a legal abortion.

In one shocking protest, a flamemco artist danced up to the steps of Malaga’s cathedral and unleashed fake blood from her skirt, simulating the results of a backstreet abortion.

Low birthrate

There’s a clear interplay between the economic situation and the abortion issue. Asturias has the lowest birthrate in Spain, which in turn has one of the lowest in Europe.

During the boom years births picked up, but since the crisis they’ve fallen back again. If low fertility was a straight measure of women’s liberation, this would be one of the most liberated places on Earth.

But there’s high poverty here, and for some women faced with unwanted pregnancies, there is clear economic pressure to terminate. At a refuge for single mothers in Gijon, run by Catholic nuns, I meet Luisa. When she became pregnant, she says her partner wanted a termination but she resisted.

With help from the nuns she’s surviving a single mum. “I think some women do feel forced to have abortions – because they don’t have the means to raise a child,” she says.

Cristina, a low-paid migrant worker from the Dominican Republic, is also keeping her baby but when she told her boss she was pregnant, he “strongly advised her” to have an abortion.

“My contract was about to end and I am sure I wouldn’t have been renewed if they had known I was pregnant. I waited and only told my boss after signing a new contract. He recommended to get an abortion.

Lack of support

But even here, among women expressly identified with the church, and the pro-life movement, there is scant support for the abortion ban.

Luisa says: “It’s the government’s fault because they’re only looking at making abortion illegal. They don’t give help to single mums like me. They give me 75 euros every three months! So if I didn’t have a family, what would I have done? I would have been forced to have an abortion.”

Cristina agrees: “If they ban abortion they will have to give women some options. They ban it, but they help you out somehow so that you can make it economically – and so that not everything looks so dark.”

At the Belladona clinic, in Gijon, the redoubtable manager Blanca Canedo, guides me through the facilities. I’ve covered abortion clinics before, in the USA, where the staff come to work in bulletproof vests and run a gauntlet of protesters each morning.

This one is plush, operates in open sight, provides all manner of healthcare to men and women, and instead of Kevlar you can “get the t-shirt” – a specially designed protest logo that the staff wore on the last pro-choice demo.

Ms Canedo tells me: “The problems we face if the law goes through are: women will self abort. In the old days, when there was stigma, they sought out backstreet abortions. Now, it’s more acceptable, they will go on the internet and procure pills.

“We had two women here last week already, migrants who were too frightened to go to hospital, who had put tablets in their vaginas and came in bleeding.”

While we were at the clinic one woman who had just had her pregnancy terminated agreed to speak to us. Maria (not her real name) is unemployed, has a partner and two young children. She’d had an IUD fitted just after her last birth but it failed.

“It’s psychologically stressful,” she tells me “but I have to think of the two children I have already. I can’t afford another one.”

What would she have done if the new law had been in force? “Well what options are there? Try to do your own abortion…Damage yourself physically…Or look for ways to have an illegal abortion.”

For Spain’s ruling party, the Partido Popular, this is a political gamble. Their manifesto said they would tighten abortion law, but nothing specifically as tight as this.

Many of their own supporters are against the move and there is pressure on them from partners inside the European People’s Party: health services in Britain, France and Portugal will have to deal with the vast majority of the 115,000 abortions Spain carries out each year, if the law goes through.

Matias Rodriguez-Fieto, a spokesman for the PP in the Asturian regional assembly insists there’s a political game being played here; that Spain’s socialist and far-left opposition is stirring up the abortion issue before the Euro elections.

He insists “women will still be able to get abortions” under the new law and “the details are up for grabs”.

The political context is the fragmentation of the PP while in power, with the small hard-right Vox party, formed in January, pressuring the PP to return to its socially conservative roots, and to refuse any peace settlement with the Basque terrorist group ETA.

‘Next time…dynamite!’

What Spain watchers have always feared is the splintering of the PP into its constituent parts, one of which includes the unrepentant religious right of the Franco era.

And for the women gathered in the cider brewery in Gijon, that is what they think is happening.

About a third of the women at the comadres event are miners’ wives – from mountain mining villages whose traditions of radicalism go back to the days, in October 1934, where they seized Gijon armed with dynamite – pre-empting the Spanish Civil War by two years.

The miners’ wives didn’t want to go to Madrid by train on the last demo. They wanted to walk. Now, as the women join hands and sing, they begin a chant that startles even some of the die-hard feminists and campaigners.

I know what I think they’re saying but there’s a deep Asturian accent, so I have to check with my translator. Yes, she says: “Next time we go with dynamite!”

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8 reader comments

  1. Richard Shennan says:

    Paul, Asturias is not a traditionally right wing Province as you said in your broadcast. Its history is mining and industry and it has always been a place of resistance.

  2. Maxi says:

    Well Paul. You’ve finally made it from a respected and admired economics commentator on BBC 2 Newsnight to a Channel Four ‘libertarian’. I found your piece on Spain and the manifesto commitment to respect the life on the unborn, a commitment that was democratically voted on to be so heavily ‘weighted’ as to make it obvious where your sympathies were. So much for journalistic integrity. A cursory reference to the dreaded ‘Catholic Church’ laced with liberal mention of Franco (Very clever) made me feel sad. You really have ‘sold your soul’ to Channel Four now. Liked you far better when you stuck to what you’re good at. Economic analysis. Enjoy it while it lasts. You’ve blown it as a serious/impartial journalist.

    1. Rob says:

      ‘Selling your soul’ is to suggest journalistically that you may sympathise with womens’ fertility rights over that of political/religious ideologues? What if the story had been about slavery in somalia, should he remain cooly impartial between gang leader and slave? Would he be more serious/impartial to give equal weight, time and sympathy to neo-nazis vs immigrants in Greece?
      You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

    2. mikey says:

      Maxi, ever thought that Paul was actually a Libertarian-communist of some sort all along, who was being restricted by the idelogically defined parameters of a state-funded broadcaster?

      Really, you should read his work on the Paris Commune.

      While Paul Mason is very sharp economically i much prefer his work now he is being more politically true to his principles. there are enough mouthpieces for neo-liberal economic ‘facts’ and the personality contests of Westminster.

  3. Caroline says:

    Men, especially men of the church should have absolutly no influence over the body of a woman it is her choice and her choice alone whether or not to have an abortion The middle ages saw the church and the state mis ruling the people they were governing do we really need to go back to that.This is 2014 after all

    1. Maxi says:

      Respect your view in a democratic society- but who speaks out for the unborn? A bundle of cells? Remember-that’s how you started.

    2. Xell says:

      If it’s their body and they can decide what to do with it, I just wonder, why don’t women use protection to not get pregnant? Then it comes the argument, the men should use protection too, I suppose that having great sex is more important and going through surgeries that can have some level of risk and danger for their lives and bodies, it’s simply irrelevant.

  4. LucyWebb says:

    I don’t think the Church should have any influence over politics. Obviously in Spain, which has a large Catholic community, this will be a factor, but going backwards in their laws is not acceptable. Taking away a women’s right to chose is going against her human rights. In my opinion, abortion is only moral in the circumstances proposed in this new law, but just because that is my opinion doesn’t mean it should affect how someone else chooses to live their life, especially if you don’t know their circumstances.

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