Effort is latest in a long line of policies angering country’s conservative Catholics
MADRID — Spain is on course to ease its restrictive law on abortion, setting the stage for another clash between a Socialist government that has already introduced sweeping social changes and conservatives and Catholic clergy bent on preserving traditional family values.
A parliamentary committee took the first step last week, recommending that the government legalize early stage abortions, while gradually imposing more restrictions as pregnancies progress.
Abortion is technically a crime in Spain, though it is readily available under the current system, with women needing a doctor’s certification that their health — either physical or mental — would be at risk if the pregnancy was allowed to proceed.
In theory, such pregnancies can be terminated at any stage. The current law, which dates from 1985, also allows abortion in the first 12 weeks in case of rape, and 22 weeks in case of fetal malformation.
Last year, more than 100,000 abortions were carried out in Spain — one of the higher rates in Europe.
Church and anti-abortion groups say the mental health clause in the current law has effectively allowed abortions in almost any case, since it is vague enough to apply to nearly any woman who wants to carry out the procedure.
Proponents say the new legislation is about allowing women to make their own reproductive decisions rather than forcing them to seek a doctor’s approval.
"What we are talking about is for women not to face persecution when they decide about their own motherhood," lawmaker Carmen Monton, a spokeswoman for the ruling Socialist party on the committee that recommended changing the law, told The Associated Press.
Others say the government is pushing the Roman Catholic country further away from its traditional values.
"Abortion is bad. It is bad for women and it is bad for society," said Sandra Moneo, the parliamentary spokeswoman for the opposition Popular Party. "A woman cannot have a right to something that is bad for her."
Monsignor Martinez Camino, president of the Spanish Bishops Conference, denounced the proposed law in strikingly political terms, saying it targeted the defenseless.
"The unborn don’t vote," he said. "They don’t organize."
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has clashed repeatedly with the church since he came to power in 2004, pushing through legislation legalizing gay marriage, allowing for fast-track divorces and giving increased rights to transsexuals. And the church has pushed back, holding anti-abortion rallies that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people.
After months of deliberation, the committee report released Feb. 18 was short on detail, saying early term abortion should be allowed without condition, but taking a pass on when precisely restrictions should begin to phase in.
Observers believe that ultimately the law will allow women to seek abortions up to somewhere between the 12th and 14th week of pregnancy without having to seek permission.