By DANIEL WOOLLS –
MADRID, Spain (AP) — After same-sex marriage and fast-track divorce, Spain's social revolution has hit a roadblock — abortion.
The abortion law, severely restrictive during Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship of the predominantly Roman Catholic country, was liberalized in 1985. But abortion has become too easy to obtain, say its opponents, and lately it has flared into a dispute so bitter it prompted abortion clinics to go on strike for five days.
Staffers have been arrested and 25 women who underwent abortions have been interrogated. At one point thousands of women swarmed a Madrid courthouse, shouting that they too had terminated a pregnancy, and demanding a change in the law to provide abortion on demand.
At issue is a crackdown on five facilities accused of performing abortions in violation of the law that permits them in the first 12 weeks in case of rape, 22 weeks in case of fetal malformation, and at any time if a psychiatrist certifies that the mother's physical or mental health is endangered.
Politically, it's a delicate matter. The Socialists, seeking re-election March 9, have quietly dropped a pledge of abortion on demand up to 12 or 14 weeks into a pregnancy, as exists in many other European countries, for fear of alienating centrist voters. The opposition conservatives, also seeking centrist support, are shying away from promising a complete ban as their allies in the church demand.
But for some, Spain's abortion law is already much too liberal. "In Spain, it is harder to cut down a tree illegally than it is to commit an abortion," Josep Miro i Ardevol, who leads a group called e-Cristians, wrote on its Web site.
The trouble began when police raided and shut private abortion clinics in Barcelona and Madrid in November and December, acting on complaints from church-affiliated groups that the facilities were carrying out illegal abortions.
One prominent clinic owner in Barcelona was among 13 people arrested, and he spent two months in jail until his release in mid-January. Two others remain in custody, although no one has been formally charged.
The Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics says the police searches were aggressive while demonstrators harassed patients and employees with threatening phone calls and graffiti such as "Murder is committed here."
It said that after authorities didn't respond to its pleas for protection, it called the Jan. 8-12 strike, shutting down around 40 clinics and forcing the postponement of nearly 2,000 procedures. "We are absolutely desperate because this is no way to work," Empar Pineda, the association's spokeswoman, said in an interview.
Around 100,000 abortions were carried out in 2006 in Spain, which has a population of 45 million. In Italy, by comparison, with a population of 58 million, the figure is about 137,000 for 2004, the last year for which full figures are available.
In Spain women who have an abortion can get the government to pay for it, but nationwide around 60 percent pay for it themselves, mainly because this way it is faster and more confidential. All the clinics under investigation are privately owned.
More than 90 percent of Spain's abortions fell into the category of women citing mental distress, said Pineda.
The complaints that prompted the raids were filed by e-Cristians, which alleges a gross lack of government supervision and record-keeping.
No charges have been formally brought, but the Barcelona clinics are suspected of using bogus psychiatric certificates, according to an official with the Civil Guard, which made the arrests. The two people who remain in custody are psychiatrists, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of department rules.
Pineda acknowledged that the mental-distress argument is a loophole, "a bit of theater that we play out" because Spain doesn't have abortion on demand. Under Franco, the only grounds for an abortion was a "family honor" clause designed to spare parents the embarrassment of an unwed daughter having a baby, Pineda said.
In the case of the Madrid raids, Pineda blamed the harassment on conservatives who run the regional government. Its president, Esperanza Aguirre, is seen as a candidate to take over her Popular Party's national leadership if it loses the March election, and "is winking at her electorate to show that she is tough," Pineda said.
The ruling Socialist Party, meanwhile, has already infuriated conservatives and the Roman Catholic church with its sweeping reforms and having once promised abortion on demand, now says it is open to a "period of reflection."