Spain moves to ease abortion law

The Spanish government approved a plan Friday to ease its abortion law and allow the procedure without restrictions up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, pressing ahead with a sweeping social reform agenda that has irked conservatives and the Catholic church.

The proposal needs approval from Parliament, where Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero lacks a majority and has fallen out with several erstwhile allies, either over Spain’s economic woes or for other reasons.

The bill seeks to reform the law that legalized abortion in Spain in 1985. That legislation allowed the procedure in cases of rape up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, fetal malformation up to 22 weeks and at any point when a pregnant woman’s mental or physical health were deemed by doctors to be at risk if the pregnancy went to term.

This latter loophole has generally accounted for the vast majority of abortions carried out in Spain.

Under the new proposal, besides abortion with no questions asked up to 14 weeks, the procedure would be permitted up to 22 weeks of pregnancy if two doctors certify there is a serious threat to the health of the mother, or fetal malformation.

Beyond 22 weeks, it would be allowed only if a panel of doctors certified fetal malformation deemed incompatible with life or the fetus were diagnosed with an extremely serious or incurable disease.

The plan is based on recommendations from a government-appointed panel of doctors and lawyers that issued its opinions in March. The government has adopted them without change.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said Thursday the new bill is “in line with today’s Spanish reality” and similar to abortion laws in most European countries.

Under the current Spanish law, getting an abortion outside the terms set by the legislation is a crime, at least on paper, although arrests are extremely rare. The new law would erase abortion from the penal code altogether.

“The most important thing about this law, what it seeks, is to protect women’s dignity. That is its spirit, from beginning to end,” Fernandez de la Vega said Thursday after a Cabinet meeting at which the plan was approved.

Although the new bill eliminates the clause that allowed abortions at any point in a pregnancy — even after 22 weeks — by woman citing physical or mental distress, Spanish clinics say the vast majority of abortions are carried out in the first trimester.

The government has said it hopes to have a law passed by the end of the year. Since taking power in 2004 Zapatero has legalized gay marriage and made it easier for Spaniards to divorce — big changes in a country where most people call themselves Catholic, even if church attendance is down sharply from the days of Gen. Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled in close alliance with the church from 1939 until his death in 1975.

This time Zapatero, who was re-elected in 2008, faces more of an uphill battle because of his lack of steady allies in Parliament. Basque and Catalan nationalists, for instance, who generally supported him in his first term, are angry over regional disputes and have warned their backing cannot be taken for granted.

The new reproductive health bill also includes a provision for the morning-after contraceptive pill to be made available in pharmacies without a prescription; currently some Spanish regions do require one. And women’s groups say the pill is hard to obtain in some conservative-run regions.

In a sign of the opposition Zapatero might face, the mayor of Madrid said Thursday the city will continue to require a prescription for the morning-after pill.

See: Spain to dispense morning-after pill in pharmacies

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