Rift grows in Spanish Catholic Church over “right to life” debate

Bishops continue to lobby government to repeal Socialist legislation covering terminations “What is a sin for some should not become a crime for others,” say other clergy members

Protestors at a 2010 demonstration against the Socialist government’s reforms to the abortion law.
Protestors at a 2010 demonstration against the Socialist government’s reforms to the abortion law.CRISTÓBAL MANUEL

Twenty-eight years after Spain decriminalized abortion, the issue continues to divide society. The Roman Catholic Church has long campaigned against a woman’s right to choose, and is pressuring the Popular Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy to abide by its promise of rolling back legislation introduced by the former Socialist Party administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2010, giving women the right to abortion on demand for up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Until 2010, abortion was only legal on three conditions: to preserve the physical and mental health of the mother; if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest; or if the fetus was likely to suffer mental or physical abnormalities at birth. There were also time limits and the need for doctors’ agreement, and young women under the age of 18 required parental permission.

The current law, which aimed to bring Spain more in line with its northern European neighbors, gives women the right to abort up to the 22nd week of pregnancy in cases where the mother’s health is at risk or the fetus shows serious deformities.

The Catholic Church bitterly opposed the 1985 legislation and 25 years later, with the tacit support of the PP, rallied thousands of protestors onto the streets of Madrid to show their opposition to extending and guaranteeing abortion rights in the run-up to the passing of the 2010 law. Last week the General Synod of Bishops launched a new campaign aimed at pressuring the government to push ahead with repealing the 2010 law and restricting access to abortion yet further — bearing in mind that less than five percent of terminations take place in state hospitals.

The justice minister promised changes to the law “in the first quarter of 2013”

Last year, when he announced his intentions, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón promised to put his changes to the law before Congress “in the first quarter of 2013.” With the deadline now expired, he has been targeted by self-styled pro-life groups who have staged street protests chiding the government for failing to move quickly to repeal the current abortion law.

But Gallardón has yet to announce exactly what changes he intends to make and his party seems unwilling to push the matter. At the same time, the bishops know that significant numbers of Catholics do not support restricting abortion rights further.

The title of the Synod of Bishops’ 2013 Campaign for Life is “This is me… human from the beginning,” and will take the form of a 150,000-euro campaign that will produce hundreds of billboards nationwide, along with pamphlets and letters to parishioners. The Church also intends to use social media — for example recommending the faithful change their Facebook photo for one of an ultrasound image of a fetus.

But the Roman Catholic Church is not limiting its activities to reminding its flock of their obligation to protect life at all cost; the campaign is also directed at the government. “A well-developed Christian conscience cannot favor with its vote the carrying out of a political program, or the approval of a law, that contains proposals that go against the fundamental contents of faith and morality. Our obligation is to help obtain a clearer picture of justice and of the morality of our laws. The current legislation is gravely unjust. It needs to be urgently modified to help recognize and protect the rights of all in relation to the most elemental and primary right to life.”

José Ignacio Munilla talks about abortion in terms of a “silent holocaust”

Leading the campaign to pressure the government are some of the country’s best-known senior clergy, among them the head of the General Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco; the bishop of San Sebastián, José Ignacio Munilla, who talks about abortion in terms of a “silent holocaust”; the archbishop of Oviedo, Jesús Sanz — “I am enormously surprised that this conservative government has still not changed the abortion law” — along with Juan Antonio Reig Plan, the bishop of Alcalá de Henares and president of the Synod’s family and life sub-commission: “The battle against abortion and in favor of life will be long; surely as long as that which sought to end slavery,” he said last week. Comparing the fight against abortion with the struggle against slavery is a gambit borrowed from the US anti-abortion rights movement.

There are also groups within the Catholic Church that take a much more radical position on abortion, demanding a total ban. “If it is a crime then it cannot be accepted under any circumstances,” they argue, accusing the Popular Party of “conserving the advances of the Socialists.”

But within the Catholic Church there are significant numbers of clergy and parishioners who see the daily reality of women struggling to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. The question that Church leaders now have to ask themselves is whether they want to expose these women to the risk of jail terms if abortion is once again made illegal.

These are Catholics who feel that while they belong to the Church of Rome, they are also increasingly distanced by many of its policies, and not just in relation to abortion. As theologian Juan José Tamayo, director of the Theology and Religious Sciences Chair at the Carlos III University in Madrid points out: “These are believers who have interiorized the message that the founder of the Christian Church preached to the religious hierarchy of his time: that the most important thing is to alleviate, and if possible to eradicate, suffering, above and beyond compliance with temporal laws.”

If it is a crime then it cannot be accepted under any circumstances”

The Christian Network, which represents hundreds of grassroots Catholic associations and groups throughout Spain, accuses Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón of playing politics with the abortion rights issue. “Everything was pretty much calm, and then along comes Gallardón and with him, for ideological reasons, the minority voice of Catholic nationalism demands to be heard, trying to shout down the peaceful passage of a law on sexual health and voluntary termination of pregnancy. Reflecting human rights and the latest advances in anthropological-biology, this law puts us in line ethically and legally with the modern nations of our socio-cultural milieu. Creating a social problem, with 83 percent of voters against the proposed reforms, is both dangerous and stupid,” it says.

The Platform for the Defense of Reproductive and Sexual Rights adds: “The government must guarantee that something that for some people is a sin should not become a crime for the rest of us; defending our democracy against religious fundamentalists in the process. Restrictive legislation will never succeed in avoiding abortion; it simply increases deaths among women. The new law will mean that women with money will have abortions clandestinely, while the less fortunate will likely turn to dangerous homemade remedies.”

Margarita Pintos, the president of the Association for Interreligious Dialogue, says that the issue of abortion rights needs to be addressed “from the perspective of human rights, as a public health matter. Sexual and reproductive health is part of our overall welfare and goes beyond the simple right of having access to contraception or family planning services. Sexual rights ensure that we all have the possibility to make decisions about our sexuality and to exercise them freely, without pressure or violence. Imposing limits on abortion rights is related to religious beliefs, and not just cultural or socio-economic factors.”

Pintos says that while all religions are based on a principle of respect for human life and dignity, “only in the Catholic Church is abortion considered a crime; a doctrine that is entirely open to interpretation. At the end of the day, a religious patriarchy cannot accept that women have the right to decide for themselves, without coercion, what they can and cannot do with or to their bodies. If women do not accept the role that the patriarchy has assigned them, they will be committing an act of rebellion against divine will. The majority of women are not afraid of these kinds of threats. We are aware that our bodies have been colonized and we are angry about it.”

Restrictive legislation will not end abortion; it will just increase deaths”

Juan Masía Clavel, a Jesuit theologian and a widely respected expert on bio-ethics, says that the abortion debate makes him uncomfortable. “The old manuals on urbanity used to say that a good dessert can cleanse the effects of a heavy second course. I am currently suffering from the suffocating effects of some ecclesiastics. I have recently reread some paragraphs from the biography of John the Good. It was in the July of 1962, when a suffocating heat was making the cardinals sweat during the formation of the commissions that would make up the Vatican Council. The biographer of the popes, Peter Hebblethwaite, tells us about John XXIII, the Pope who oversaw the Vatican Council: ‘Pope John began to distance himself from some of the initial drafts, or Vatican II. One day he measured a page with his ruler and said: fifteen centimeters of punishments and just two centimeters of praise. Is that the way to dialog with the contemporary world?’ It was down to Cardinal Montini, later Paul VI, to get the rest of the council to understand this idea. The anathema and the punishments, he said, are not the response to contemporary mistakes. In the modern world, the remedies for mistakes are forgiveness, charity, and the testimony of the Christian life.”

Those who support Clavel’s ideas and believe, for humanitarian reasons, in decriminalizing abortion are outraged when they hear senior figures within the Church such as Antonio Cañizares, the former head of the Catholic Church in Spain, and now the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments — the body responsible for liturgical and sacramental matters within the Roman Catholic Church — say that voluntary termination of a pregnancy is worse than child abuse by priests. Or, in the words of Jorge Gómez of the archdiocese of Buenos Aires: “The violation of faith is a thousand times worse than raping a young girl.”

Theology versus history

“Public opinion is divided at both ends of the spectrum regarding the question of bioethics,” says Jesuit theologian Juan Masía.

The former director of the Chair of Bioethics at the Pontifical University of Comillas, Masía was sacked in 2006 under pressure from senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church in Spain. Today he lives in Japan, but returns to Europe frequently to take part in debates and conferences. He has just published Cuidar la vida. Debates bioéticos (Caring for life. Bioethical debates).

No defender of abortion in itself (who would want to have an abortion just for the sake of it?), he nevertheless calls for understanding of women who demand it as a legal right. “Catholic pastoral activity goes beyond moral duties. We need to be by the side of those who are taking such a serious decision. We have to accompany people. Once they have decided and gone past the point of no return, there is no point in telling them that they shouldn’t do it; this will only make them feel more guilty,” he argues.

Listening to senior figures such as Pope Francis or Spain’s Cardinal Rouco, it is easy to beleive that the Catholic Church has always been united in its absolute opposition to abortion, and that the same applies to other Christian groups.

The reality is that the issue has long been debated, with many opposing views and arguments emerging over the years.

For centuries, the predominant view of the Catholic Church has been that the fetus is only informed by the soul three months into pregnancy. Until that moment, there is no human life as such, but simply vegetable life followed by animal life. This is why abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is not homicide, infanticide, or murder — because the fetus is not animated.

Male supremacy

Other theories, based on ideas of male supremacy, distinguished between the animation of the male and female fetus, bringing the male forward to 40 days and the female to 90 days. The idea of animation was put forward by Saint Augustine of Hipona, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Buenaventura, and other medieval theologians.

Most theologians now distance themselves from the ideas of the Vatican, but arguing that life begins at the moment of conception, as Spain’s bishops do, is to many thinkers as extravagant today as continuing to believe that the Earth is at the center of the universe, and that there are no other worlds than those adjudged by the popes.

German thinker Karl Rahner, who died in 1984 at the age of 80, argued that no theologian could prove that terminating a pregnancy is an act of murder. Other important religious thinkers such as Hans Küng, Juan José Tamayo, or Marciano Vidal, agree.

But the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church maintains that abortion is murder in every case, and refuses to take into account the circumstances and timeframes involved in terminating a pregnancy.

In Spain, despite the vociferous protests of some senior figures within the Catholic Church against the current abortion law, there are significant numbers of women’s groups, theologians, grassroots groups, and members of the clergy themselves, who support the reforms passed by the Socialist Party in 2010 that made some headway in allowing women abortion on demand.

Many see the question in terms of human rights, and base their support on common sense: are the bishops prepared to incarcerate the thousands of women who abort each year?

Others appeal to doctrine, which has never been unanimous, and also listen to the medical profession, which is far from being in overall agreement on abortion.

What these groups want is for Church leaders to pay more attention to the many voices and opinions in society, as well as in the Catholic Church itself, and for them to also listen to thinkers and scientists; leaving punishment and anathema out of the equation.

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