Spain’s Move to Strengthen Abortion Laws Reflects Wider Trend, Says Legal Analyst

By Patrick Goodenough | February 6, 2014 | 5:10 AM EST

Left-wing members of the European Parliament demonstrate against Spain's proposed abortion bill in January. (Photo: European United Left/Nordic Green Left group)

( – A move by the Spanish government to reverse a four-year-old law allowing abortion on demand up to the 14th week of pregnancy has triggered a storm of protests, but a legal scholar says that far from violating international norms as critics contend, it is in line with a new political trend in Europe and the United States.

Spain’s previous socialist government decriminalized abortion in the traditionally Catholic country in 2010. Its conservative successor, in keeping with an election manifesto pledge, approved a bill last December to outlaw abortion except in cases of rape or where a mother’s health is in serious jeopardy.

It will need to be passed by parliament, where the ruling People’s Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy controls a majority of seats.

Protesters opposed to the change rallied outside the Spanish parliament last weekend while solidarity demonstrations were held in other European capitals. Topless activists from a radical women’s group attacked the Archbishop of Madrid outside a church, hurling underwear at him and shouting, “Abortion is sacred.”

Elements in the new proposal angering opponents include a requirement that a woman seeking an abortion on grounds of risk to her health must have the support of two doctors who are not affiliated with a clinic where the abortion is being sought.

It would also reinstate a requirement, thrown out under the 2010 law, for parental permission in the case of a girl under age 18 seeking an abortion.

“This is a return to a past of ultraconservative ideology and religious morality that we thought outdated, where Spanish women have two options: to have an abortion out of Spain if they have the financial resources to do so, or to have an abortion in Spain under clandestine conditions with consequent risk on their health and their life,” charged Spanish women’s lobby CELEM when the government first announced the plan.

Critics say the move violates European norms, and a number of members of the European Parliament have held events in recent weeks highlighting opposition to the Spanish bill.

“I find it unacceptable that we have to discuss these issues over and over again in the 21st century,” said Sophie in’t Veld, a Dutch European lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary working group on “sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

Others called the bill “backwards” and “the most draconian” in Europe.

While opponents say the Spanish proposal is out-of-step, the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), an affiliate of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, argues that it is a reflection of a “new trend,” one that is moving away from the focus of a “right to abortion.”

While the 2010 law prioritized the rights of the mother, ECLJ director Gregor Puppinck wrote in an analysis of the Spanish proposal, the bill “intends to take into account the rights of all those involved in abortion.”

“It is therefore about finding a better balance between the various competing rights and interests. The result of this search for balance is that the life of an unborn child cannot be sacrificed without a proportionate reason.”

Puppinck, an international law and human rights specialist, cautioned against over-optimism on the part of pro-lifers, saying the future application of the bill depends largely on prevailing “political and cultural circumstances.”

Still, he argued that rather than violate any international or European norm, “this Spanish bill falls within a new policy trend moving towards the improvement of the legal protection of unborn children in relation to abortion.”

“This policy is in the process of establishing itself in Europe and the United States where several states have recently discussed and often adopted new laws improving the protection of human life.”

He cited law changes adopted or proposed for adoption in European countries including Russia, Switzerland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Hungary and Macedonia.

“This trend is even more pronounced in the United States where a true cultural transition is taking place,” wrote Puppinck.

“Thus, between 2010 and 2013, U.S. states have adopted 205 new restrictions on abortion, which is more than in the previous ten years. In particular, abortion after 20 weeks has been banned in a dozen states, the protection of unborn children with disabilities has been strengthened, stricter conditions have been imposed on clinics and there has been further regulation of chemical abortion.”

Signs of shifting attitudes in the U.S. were also evident in a YouGov poll for the Huffington Post last June.

Asked for their views on current restrictions on abortions, 43 percent of respondents said they were “not strict enough” while 20 percent said they were “too strict” and 17 percent said they were “about right.”

Forty-nine percent of respondents said they personally believed having an abortion was “morally wrong,” compared to 12 percent saying it was “morally acceptable” and 24 percent saying it was “not a moral issue.”

And asked, “Would you favor or oppose a federal law that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape or incest?” 41 percent said they would “strongly favor” such a law while 21 percent would “strongly oppose” it. Eighteen percent said they would “somewhat favor” and nine percent would “somewhat oppose” such a law.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow