Abortion: A trip back in time

Planned reforms to the laws covering pregnancies would take Spain back to the 1980s, say critics

A protest calling for the legalization of abortion in 1978 in Madrid.
A protest calling for the legalization of abortion in 1978 in Madrid.CHEMA CONESA (EL PAÍS)

Women in Spain can currently opt for an abortion during the first 14 weeks of their pregnancy, no questions asked. After that, a medical report is required and certain criteria need to be met: abortions are legal until week 22 if a health risk is detected, and at any point if the fetus shows severe abnormality or suffers from a condition that is incompatible with life outside the womb.

Things have been this way for just under three years, after the Socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed legislation phasing out the previous law, which criminalized abortion for the entire duration of the pregnancy, with exceptions made for rape, health risks or fetal abnormality.

But this law, which brought Spain in line with most other European countries and made motherhood a choice, not an imposition, is now hanging by a thread.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, of the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP), has announced legal reforms that will eliminate abortion on demand until week 14 and go back to the earlier system.

The change, experts warn, would not only take Spain back more than 25 years. The new regulations would also place Spain at the same level as Malta or Ireland, the only two EU members where fetal abnormalities are not considered a valid reason for abortion. The justice minister has made it quite clear that he will eliminate this reason for requesting an abortion in Spain as well.

The change would affect the 3,000 or so extremely serious cases of birth defects diagnosed each year, says the gynecologist Pilar Martínez Ten, an expert in prenatal diagnosis. It means that women whose developing fetuses suffer from severe brain disorders such as ACC or anencephaly (where part or most of the brain is missing) will have to go abroad to terminate their pregnancies.

"The restriction will also prevent an autopsy from being carried out to determine whether the disease will occur again with other children," says Martínez Ten.

Experts are certain that a more restrictive law will not put a stop to the more than 110,000 abortions that are carried out in Spain each year; instead, women without the means to travel abroad will resort to unsafe methods. And in the 21st century, clandestine abortions are no longer performed by midwives at home, says the gynecologist Isabel Serrano. "Women will use drugs that were not meant for this use, and this will cause them serious health problems."

Gallardón's plans have attracted criticism not just from the opposition, but also from some sectors of his own party. The deputy spokesman of the Popular Group in Congress, Rafael Hernando, has spoken out against making abortion illegal for fetal abnormality. Meanwhile, the party's secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal, has refused to make any comments until the government brings the actual bill to the table. While Gallardón has been deliberately vague about the specifics of the reform, he has repeatedly said that the new law will eliminate fetal abnormality as a legal cause of abortion, a move that many observers see as a concession to the party's most right-wing sector and to the Catholic Church.

A return to furtive flights abroad?


There were many of them on that flight, and nearly all of them were going there for the same purpose. Some of them chatted away to keep their feelings of insecurity at bay. Others sank back into their seats. It was the first time they had left their homes, and on top of that they were on a plane, flying to a foreign country. But Cinta was calmer. She spoke English, she was better travelled, and was in touch with the groups of women who helped organize these trips, who had explained every step of a journey whose purpose was far from tourism. It was the kind of trip that none of them wanted to make. It was 1980 and that plane was taking them to Amsterdam to have abortions. In Spain, terminations were a crime that carried a six-year jail sentence, and those who needed an abortion only had two choices: either take a risk with an unsafe procedure or, if they could afford it, go to clinics in The Netherlands or London.

Until 1985, when Spain's laws were changed to allow abortion in certain cases, around 30,000 Spanish women were going abroad every year to end pregnancies. Over 20,000 of them went to London clinics, according to British government figures. Cinta, who is now a 56-year-old teacher, explains that she chose to go to The Netherlands because it was not necessary to spend the night there afterward.

"You were not gone so long," she explains. "And that was important, because most families had no idea what was going on." Like hers, for instance. Telling them about it was never an option, she felt, nor was going ahead with the pregnancy. "I was just a little over 20. I was not ready to have a child, because of the relationship, because I was studying...," she says. Now she fears that the planned reform will set Spain back so badly that a whole new generation of young women will find themselves in the same situation - or worse.

Cinta was going to university when she got pregnant, and she did odd jobs to earn some money. Still, she didn't have the more than 30,000 pesetas she needed to pay for the procedure. And that was without even considering the plane fare. She remembers borrowing from her friends and gathering information as best she could. It was two years since birth-control pills had been made legal in Spain, and that made everything a bit easier. Until 1978, even providing information about birth control had been forbidden. This gave rise to a discreet network run by feminist groups that helped women learn about planned parenthood. Justa Montero, a historical member of Spain's feminist movement and co-founder of the Pro-Abortion Rights Committee, remembers how they also gave women the addresses of reliable abortion clinics in London and Amsterdam, as well as a list of friendly travel agencies.

This circuit became increasingly professional with the opening of the nation's first family planning centers, which also began organizing the trips undercover, at great risk to organizers. It typically lasted four days, Thursday through Sunday. The clinics were getting so many Spanish clients that they eventually hired personnel who spoke the language. The network functioned like clockwork: the women came to the center, where they got referred to the travel agency, which gave them a code name to obtain the plane tickets. There was a last-minute meeting with the group, then off to London... "There were all types of women - single women, married women who had left their husbands worrying back home because they could not afford two plane tickets...," recalls Luisa Torres, a social worker with over 40 years' experience, first at the planned parenthood centers and later at Clínica Dator, Spain's first legal abortion clinic.

The fear was even greater after 1980, when a judge prosecuted a woman who had an abortion in London, claiming extraterritoriality in the crime. The Constitutional Court cleared up the issue in 1984, a year before abortion laws changed.

But not everyone reached this circuit, not by a long shot. In 1974, an estimated 300,000 back-alley abortions were being performed a year, according to the Supreme Court prosecutor's office. The more conservative sectors always dismissed this figure as exaggerated, but at the time neither prophylactics nor birth-control pills were easily available.

"There have always been abortions in Spain, in one way or another. Many wealthy women or their daughters disguised their abortions as appendicitis," says Torres. The real problem was for poor women, often from the country, who were forced to resort to unsafe abortions.

María remembers being sick for a month. She was 15 when her grandmother walked into the bathroom as she was taking a shower and said point-blank: "You're pregnant." María came clean. "I was three months pregnant, and before being found out I kept telling myself that if I didn't think about it, it would just go away. I was just a child."

It was 1973 and María lived in a house in El Raval, a low-income neighborhood of Barcelona. Her grandmother called a local woman, "the nurse, they called her." The woman lay María down on her mother's bed, and did everything.

"I have never in my life been through anything that painful. The suffering was made worse by the thought that you were doing something taboo," she recalls. The so-called nurse introduced a fine, flexible tube inside her by pushing it through with a knitting needle. The woman then introduced a liquid through the tube. "It contained, among other things, caustic soda," explains María. The nurse left, and the pain began. It burned terribly. The young woman was unable to get up from bed for many days, except to expel the remains of the abortion inside a washbowl.

María's voice still shakes when she remembers it. "I don't wish for anybody to go through that. No woman should abort in those conditions." She was young and scared, though more about the obscurity of the whole procedure than about its legal consequences. The penal code established six years of prison for a woman guilty of having an abortion - six months if she did it to conceal her dishonor. Six months is what prosecutors wanted for 11 working-class women from Bilbao who went to trial in 1979 for terminating their pregnancies. In the end, they were pardoned.

María has led a good life. But she was never able to have kids. The doctor says it is probably because of the infection she had after the abortion. She survived, but many others, around 3,000 a year, died from complications.

"Changing the law would be madness"


Mercedes Perles, 36, had an abortion a mere three weeks ago, on April 22. She underwent the procedure seven days after a gynecologist at Marina Salud hospital, in the Valencian town of Dénia, confirmed what other reports had already found: that the child she was expecting had three copies of chromosome 21 (which shows the occurrence of Down syndrome), a generalized edema and a cystic hygroma (an abnormal growth associated with serious complications and fetal death).

"It went down from his neck to his buttocks, and it kept getting bigger. Let me tell you, it wasn't just a little bump on his arm," says Mercedes, describing the hygroma in the same terms that the specialist used to tell her about it when they were sat in front of the ultrasound screen.

"I didn't want to harbor any future doubts about it, so that is why I asked the doctor to explain all the details of what was going on," she explains. "It was not a viable fetus."

Mercedes does not spare any details regarding the tough personal journey she had to go through. "I don't understand all the secrecy regarding these issues - I am neither the first nor the last woman to go through this," she says, speaking at a sidewalk café opposite the port of Dénia, from where her husband Salvador, a fisherman, had set sail hours earlier.

"As long as my experience helps just one more woman feel like she is not alone, that is enough for me," she adds.

She was 17 weeks pregnant, still within the 22 weeks allowed by the law for fetal abnormality. In her case, she could have had the abortion at any time, considering the severe condition of the fetus.

But just three years ago, before the current law went into effect, Mercedes would have had to go abroad to terminate her pregnancy. Between 1985 and 2010, abortion was a crime except for three cases: one of which was fetal abnormality, but only until week 22 of gestation. That is why hundreds of women traveled to France, where there are no deadlines for such cases. It was a bureaucratic, expensive, stressful process, notes Pilar Martínez Ten, an expert in prenatal diagnosis. This is on top of all the emotional pain, since these children are very much wanted, just like in Mercedes' case.

There is no need to steer the conversation toward Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón and his plan to eliminate fetal abnormality as a legal reason to request an abortion. Mercedes brings it up herself. "It would be madness. Who has the right to tell a woman who is expecting a baby that is not well what she must do?" she asks.

"I have total respect and even admiration for people who decide to go ahead and have a child with severe problems. But I also need to have the right to decide," she says. "Even if the fetus did not have problems, the woman's decision must be respected, because nobody but she knows what their exact circumstances are."

Mercedes is afraid of what the reform will mean. "There will still be cases like mine. If abortion becomes illegal, those with money will go abroad, and those without it will try to have [a termination] here - and who knows in what conditions."

Three years ago, she went through a similar experience. Nine weeks into her term, a test detected that her baby had no heartbeat. It was a miscarriage. This time, the experience has been more bitter: Mercedes became pregnant again, but alarms went off at the 12-week ultrasound.

"The gynecologist told me that the nuchal scan [which measures the risk of Down syndrome] was very high. They also detected the hygroma." After that, there were constant tests, and a constant fear of miscarriage because of all the problems the fetus had."

Later tests performed by other specialists showed that the tumor was growing. "The doctor was extraordinarily tactful. They try not to make the situation more painful than it already is. He asked us what we wanted to do, and we knew it quite clearly. I would rather cry for a month than for an entire lifetime."

Mercedes says she is recovering after a "very tough" month. "I am managing to sleep at night again."

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