In 1985, 10 years after the end of the fascist dictatorship, Spain decriminalised abortion. It became legal in cases when pregnancy posed a risk to the life or health of the woman or the foetus, or in case of rape. In 2010, the congress passed a bill to make abortion legal on request during the first 14 weeks of gestation. This means that women no longer need to justify their reasons to end their pregnancy.
This law is still in force today and abortion can be carried out in public hospitals for free, or in private ones for a fee of 300€. However, a decade after the ratification, abortion is still a hotly debated topic in Spain, and women find many barriers to exercise their legal right to choose.
Abortion on request is contemplated under Spanish law, but so is the right to conscientious objection of medical professionals. Conscientious objection is an individual’s right to refuse to participate in certain activities on the grounds of morality, religion or freedom. While the term is popularly used in military terms, medical staff can object to carry out procedures such as abortions or euthanasia.
There is no official register of medical objectors in Spain, so the exact number is unknown. Yet, several pro-choice organisations report that it is a very common practice in many public, but also some private, hospitals. This makes abortion a not so easy procedure in a country where it has been legal for over 10 years.
Many women lack access to safe abortion in Spain due to conscientious objection.
In the autonomous community of La Rioja, with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants, the termination of pregnancy is not attainable in any public or private health centre. This is due to the conscientious objection of all medical staff based there.
In the Catalan region of Lleida and the area of the Pyrenees, with a population of over 400,000 people, it is not possible to have a clinical abortion for the same reason. Every single gynaecologist signed a conscientious objection. As of last week, however, a couple of centres have been authorised to offer abortion pills, which can only be taken up to the 9th week of gestation.
In Castilla y Leon, a region of 2 million and almost 100,000 km2, women are in a similar position. It’s almost impossible to access an abortion due to professional conscientious objection, but also poor bureaucracy and lack of empathy. Women from these Spanish areas, and many more, are referred to centres in other regions with bigger cities nearer to them. This could involve a trip of over 300 km for some of them.
Not even forward-looking cities like Madrid or Barcelona are exempt of this breach of women’s rights.
While most women find no issues in bigger cities, some have to visit several clinics until they are welcomed and heard nonjudgmentally.
The government of Catalonia insists that conscientious objection can be claimed at an individual level, but never institutionally. However, the Hospital de San Pau, in Barcelona, does not carry out abortions on request at all. This hospital only terminates a pregnancy when the mother or the foetus’ life or health are at risk.
The odyssey of finding the “right” clinic or traveling to other regions can be atrocious. It delays the procedure, increases health risks by the week, and enhances women’s perceived trauma unnecessarily. It also adds to the economic cost. Abortion must be not only legal, but free and accessible to everyone.
Three Days of Reflection
The process of getting an abortion is not very straightforward. This is true even when the centre’s atmosphere and staff are welcoming and knowledgeable. According to Spanish law, women who seek an abortion must wait three days from the day they request it until it’s performed. This period is called three days of reflection. During these days pregnant women are expected to (re)consider whether they really want to get the abortion.
This legal requirement is yet another barrier for women. It delays the practice. It adds to women’s pressure and trauma, mainly for those who, for personal circumstances, are making a particularly tough decision.
The three days of reflection is also a clear example of how women’s rights and autonomy are blatantly violated. In this instance, women are not understood as legal subjects with full knowledge of their own wills and desires. Women are believed not to be able to make decisions about their own lives and bodies and in need of extra time for this consideration.
Spanish private and public institutions should look after women’s wellbeing and make these procedures as agile as possible. The mandatory three days of reflection should be revisited to limit the negative consequences for women’s mental and physical health.
Lack of Information and Censorship
According to the pro-choice organisation Associacio Drets Sexuals i Reproductius, Spain’s Ministry of Health hasn’t made any efforts to raise awareness or promote information about abortion on request since it was legalised in 2010.
There is no public institution advising Spanish women about the abortion clinics available to them or the different methods used to terminate a pregnancy.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spanish legislation proved again its very little commitment to women’s rights. Spain banned the website Women on Web, an international organisation that provides overarching information about sexual and reproductive rights. They also include accurate and updated information about abortion in Spain.
As a result, the organisation Women’s Link Worldwide has reported the Spanish government for not realising its responsibility to guarantee free and accessible information about women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Spain is failing women.
Regardless of its legal status, abortion seems to still be taboo and inaccessible for many. Centres are unresponsive, information is limited, and women’s judgement is questioned. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights, as well as their agency to exercise them, are fundamental for empowerment and gender equality. Governments and laws must ensure that abortions are not only legal, but free, safe and accessible for all.