Witch-Hunt Against Spain’s Abortion Clinics

Marcy Bloom

On January 7, abortion providers in Spain stated to the world that they will not be victims of governmental persecution and anti-choice manipulation. They decided to go on strike, accepting only "emergency" cases.

Legal abortion and quality abortion care save women's lives, preserve our health, allow us to choose our futures and raise the children we may already have, and are core aspects of women's equality and reproductive justice. More than anything else, respectful abortion care decreases the suffering, pain, and death of women and girls everywhere.

And yet, throughout the world, abortion is still ferociously debated, women who are denied their reproductive rights still suffer and die, and abortion clinics and physicians are frequently maligned, threatened, attacked, arsoned, bombed, brutalized, and harassed. In the US, seven doctors and clinic staff have been assassinated, despite the fact that abortion has been legal in the US for thirty-five years.

Having worked in women's clinics providing safe and professional abortion care since 1970, I often wonder if the world even notices the good and important work we do. Due to the ongoing stigma of abortion, it is still very difficult and frightening for many women and men to openly discuss their abortion experiences. Indeed, due to the fear of being professionally marginalized and physically attacked, even killed, women's clinic staff are also cautious about discussing what they do in public.

How do we prove to the world what is obvious to us–that if safe abortion did not exist, women would suffer? If we simply went away, for a day or a week, how different would the world be? What would happen to women?

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On January 7, our colleagues in Spain stood up for themselves and stated to the world that they will not be victims of governmental persecution and anti-choice manipulation. They decided to go on strike, accepting only "emergency" cases.

Private clinics in Spain, which perform most of the country's abortions, began the five-day strike to protest what they declared was persecution and harassment by government inspectors as well as anti-abortion rights campaigners. The intimidation and fear began in November, when government representatives and police agents invaded clinics in Barcelona with accusations that "illegal" abortions (abortions past the legal limit) were occurring. Medical records and documents were seized, 40 patients (some from out of the country) were harassed, and twelve clinical staff members, including physicians, were detained, among them Dr. Carlos Morín, the director, who was subsequently arrested and remains in jail. The complaints against these clinics were brought by the Catholic organization e-Christians, based on a report by a Danish television program where Dr. Morín is alleged to have offered an abortion to an eight-month pregnant undercover Danish journalist.

From then on, the situation became even more sensationalized. A woman from the Netherlands was arrested because she had supposedly undergone an illegal late-term abortion at one of Dr. Morín's clinics. Other women's health clinics in Madrid–not associated with Dr .Morín–were arbitrarily harassed, invaded, and disrupted under the guise of "official inspections."

The New York Times reported on January 9 that the persistent crackdown, raids, and violence against these clinics revives a debate about Spain's abortion laws at an awkward time for the Socialist government of Prime Minster José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had been trying to avoid so-called controversial issues before close elections occur in March. Under his leadership, the prime minister's party had previously discussed the reform of Spain's restrictive abortion laws. But now, with the prime minister's "liberal" image being viewed as a political liability, he is trying to polish his image as a moderate, attempting to appeal to undecided, younger, and conservative voters. (Sounds just like the US elections, doesn't it?) With the Socialist party presently leading only by a few percentage points, the prime minister now states that he no longer wishes to liberalize the current abortion laws and wants to only reassess the existing laws.

Abortion rights, and women's lives, just like in the US, are kicked around like a political football. However, it will be difficult to avoid this issue in Spain right now. After all, numerous women's lives were disrupted by the clinics' strike.

How many women were affected by the strike? According to Francisca García Gallego, Madrid regional director of the Association of Accredited Clinics for the Termination of Pregnancy, the organization which organized the strike, as many as 2,000 women likely felt its impact. She indicated that the striking clinics accepted only "medical emergency" cases for abortion care during this time, defined as when the mother's life or health was at risk. Women without medical emergencies who had appointments during the strike were seen before the stoppage or were given new appointments.

Spain decriminalized abortion in 1985, and under current law, women can have an abortion during the first 22 weeks of pregnancy if there is a risk of fetal defect, and in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape. It is also theoretically allowed at any time if a pregnant woman's physical or mental health is medically certified as being in danger. The number of abortions in Spain has doubled in the past decade, to more than 100,000 procedures annually in the past decade. Clearly, as is true everywhere in the world, this demonstrates that this is a critical right and much-need medical care that must remain available for all women.

The arrests at the Barcelona clinics soon created a backlash at all clinics throughout Spain. This backlash was encouraged by conservative media and anti-choice activists, which promoted a "Christian Family Day" rally organized by Catholic bishops in Madrid on December 30 where more than 150,000 people demonstrated to defend so-called "traditional family values" and speak out against abortion. The conservative media also created public alarm with a "flurry of media reports about women who allegedly travel to Spain to receive illegal late term abortions," says García, of the clinic association. Ms. García also asserted that cases of illegal abortion were extremely rare in Spain and that 90% of abortions in Spain occur in the first 12 weeks. She decried the abusive clinic inspections, invasions, and violence, stated that patients' privacy and dignity had been violated, and the professionalism and safety of clinic staff undermined. "After 22 years of exercising this right, a shadow of doubt has started to appear over our professionalism. We feel physically threatened, but nobody in the government has come to our defense."

During the strike, government officials in Madrid finally responded and pledged to protect abortion providers from the violence and harassment. Local abortion clinics were told that they could solicit police protection against death threats and vandalism caused by ultra-conservatives or neo-Nazi groups.

That recognition and action are important and long overdue. But is it enough? What of the future? Will there be more strikes? Will abortion providers in other countries consider this tactic? Having been in the honorable field of abortion care for many years, I know that abortion providers are tired of being dismissed, manipulated, attacked, lied about, and targets of political expediency and religious fundamentalist hatred and violence. We have every right to protect ourselves, to continue to help women, to practice our craft, and to professionally provide safe and compassionate abortion care. The time for ending the use of our profession as political pawns must come to an end–today.

As eloquently stated by the Association of Accredited Clinics for the Termination of Pregnancy and The Spanish Interest Group on Population, Development, and Reproductive Health,

We want to manifest our solidarity with the women, who are the real victims of the inspections, the accusations, the libel, the illicit activities, and the (official) silence. Because it is the thousands of women in this country who see, again, the questioning of their ability to exercise a legitimate right that is about freedom and the will to choose to have children. With these words, we want to assure these women that our efforts to make possible their rights will continue, as we have persevered in this country for the past twenty years.

In Spain, the US, and virtually everywhere, the stigma of shame and cruelty that has been relentlessly and systematically used to vilify those seeking and performing safe abortion care remains. The witch-hunts go on.

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.