Commentary Human Rights

The Fight for Reproductive Rights in Spain: Our Struggle Is Yours

Carme Chacon

A new bill in Spain threatens to make abortion a crime. This would be a giant step backward for women and for all of Spanish society.

It is hard to believe for many of my American partners as well as for many young Spaniards: in Spain, just 40 years ago, still in the ’70s, in the final phase of the Franco dictatorship, women needed the permission of a man—her father or husband—to open a bank account, sign a contract, or arrange a passport.

It is hard to believe that in many legal aspects women were treated as children, but it was; and divorce was not allowed nor were contraceptives, and women could be convicted in court for adultery or even accused of abandoning their home if they left after suffering abuse from their husband.

The greatest social transformation achieved by the Spanish democracy has been, in my opinion, ending the discrimination that invalidated half the population. Since the adoption of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, women have joined the workforce and taken positions of power—a revolution in all aspects.

Within a year of Francos’ death in 1975, all political parties were legalized, and Spain celebrated democratic elections—a change that was made possible thanks to pressure from citizens and legal reforms promoted by the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I. The political uprising brought forth other changes across all aspects of life, particularly for women. Democracy and the modernization of the country accelerated when, in 1982, the Socialist Party won the national elections with a very broad majority.

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Over the years, women have staged a peaceful revolution in Spain: We were one of the first countries in the world to make fighting against gender violence a major national priority, to end gender discrimination in all fields (even in the military, where women have access to all positions), and to increase by half the number of women holding political positions at all levels (including at central and regional government offices and municipalities). Women are also the majority of the students at Spanish universities.

For years, progress was spectacular in the battle against gender discrimination. Particularly, when Spain became the third country to legalize gay marriage in 2005.

I still remember the pride I felt in 2005 when I led a Spanish parliamentary delegation that was received with a resounding applause by the United Nations Conference on the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on the status of women.

However, many of these achievements, including some as crucial as the economic independence of women, are being threatened by the economic crisis, which began in 2008, and the deliberate actions of the conservative government in power since December 2011.

These crises have affected women and female participation in the labor market, which shrunk by 10 percent between 2008 and 2013. The wage gap between men and women has grown, while the presence of women in high positions of government and business has declined.

The government’s conservative agenda has downplayed the issue of gender violence, despite some very disturbing numbers. In the last ten years, up to 700 women have died in Spain because of domestic violence. And up to 22 percent of women reportedly have suffered abuse at the hands of their partners, according to a recent survey by the European Union. Clearly, this problem persists but rarely appears in Spanish conservatives’ public discourse.

But, without a doubt, the biggest setback we are experiencing, the most disturbing, is the attempt to suppress the right of women to freely terminate a pregnancy. After experiencing years of progress under progressive governments, in 2010 Spain passed a law that bans abortion after 14 weeks’ gestation. This law, similar to those passed in the United States, has reduced the number of abortions practiced in Spain and has significant public support. Also like in the United States, among medical professionals there is a widespread opposition to the restriction on the right of women to safe, legal abortion.

The conservative government now intends to repeal this law and replace it with a new one that would make abortion a crime, except in cases of rape or to protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant person. Women, then, are treated as minors in that their decision to terminate a pregnancy must be approved as appropriate by a judge, doctor, or psychiatrist, a humiliating process for someone who already is suffering enough.

According to reports, 90 percent of abortions currently practiced in Spain would be illegal under the law the government wants to pass. The only alternative that a Spanish woman with resources would have is to travel to neighboring countries—Portugal, Great Britain, or France, for instance—where abortion is not a crime. But in a country with 26 percent unemployment and a third of children at risk of poverty, many women would be forced to risk their lives—again, like during Franco dictatorship—in a clandestine clinic.

There is no rational or ethical justification for a change like this. To accept this rule means to accept that some men have the right to decide what women can do with their bodies, that men should protect women and women should obey them, and that men are better able to make decisions about sexuality and reproduction than women. In short, this bill is a giant step backward for women and for all of Spanish society. That is why we must do all we can to prevent its approval.

In ancient Greece, the Stoic philosophers held that each of us lived in two communities: the local community, in which we are born, and the human community, where there are no boundaries and no person is alien to us. Women know this particularly. Without the fight of suffragist women in the United States or Great Britain, in New Zealand or Australia, the right to vote would have been delayed much longer for other nations. Similarly, the example set by a democratic Spain has been crucial for the fight for sexual and reproductive rights in Southern Europe and Latin America.

The battle Spanish women are facing now is a battle against an aggression beyond the borders of the local community. Italian women, for example, adopted on International Women’s Day in March the motto “Io decido” (“I decide”) in solidarity with the Spaniards. Our cause is also the cause of American women, and of all women in the world. We need the support of all women in our struggle. As once said by the first woman deputy prime minister of Spain, María Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, “When a woman takes a step, all women go forward.” Thus, it must be all women together who fight to keep Spanish women’s rights from receding into a dark past.

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