A recent reform was meant to guarantee free abortion in all of Spain. Is it working?

A recent reform was meant to guarantee free abortion in all of Spain. Is it working?

Spain recently passed a reform to improve the unequal access to abortion but enforcement has been poor in some autonomous communities and regional elections that could see a far-right party advance have stoked fears the new law could be all but shelved in some areas.

The reform which aims to improve access to abortion by making it mandatory for each of the country’s 17 autonomous communities to offer the procedure in public hospitals, including those with conservative and right-wing local governments, came into force in March.

Difficulties in accessing the procedure through the public health system, including long waiting times or distance to the nearest clinic, have previously forced many pregnant people to seek private care with a price tag sometimes ranging between €300 to €700.

That was the case for 30-year-old Mireya who has a pre-existing health condition making an abortion riskier than usual. When she needed the procedure last year, both her primary health care centre and a public hospital in Barcelona told her to go private, where she ended up having to pay €1,200 for the surgery and overnight care that she needed.

The latest reform is also meant to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to undergo an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian and removes the mandatory three-day reflection period which previously forced women to wait 72 hours before being able to schedule the procedure.

'Not even that option exists'

Abortion has been free and legal in Spain — at least in theory — since the sexual and reproductive health and abortion law was first passed by former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2010.

But in practice, women’s ability to access an abortion depends on where they live. In some autonomous communities such as La Rioja, the majority of doctors in public hospitals have refused to perform the procedure out of religious belief, so-called conscientious objection.

La Rioja was governed by the conservative People’s Party for 24 years before a socialist government was elected in 2019. Because of its conservative past, “the problem we had was that all health care staff previously objected to abortions, including in private clinics,” Izaskun Fernández Núñez, the president of the association Progressive Women of La Rioja, told Euronews.

But following efforts to educate healthcare staff on sexual and reproductive health and the opening of a specialised public clinic in the city of Logroño in November last year, La Rioja has started to perform abortions for the first time. Women had previously had to travel to other autonomous communities to have the procedure, Fernández Núñez said.

In Castile and León, five out of nine provinces haven’t reported a single abortion since 2010.

"Women can’t do it in their province even if they paid, even if they went private…not even that option exists," Nina Infante Castrillo, the vice president of the Feminist Forum of Castile and León, said.

Despite the new reform coming into force in March, women in the region have seen little progress when it comes to improved access to abortion, and only the provincial capital Burgos offers the procedure in a public hospital, she explained.

At the beginning of the year, the far-right party Vox — which sits in the regional coalition government alongside the People’s Party — tried to push through a measure that would force medical staff to offer women seeking an abortion the option of listening to the foetus’s heartbeat and having a 4D ultrasound scan.

Infante Castrillo believes the new reform is a good opportunity to improve the situation but insists it will have to come with regulations and prodding from the central government.

"We’re trying to put pressure from the civil society side, but at the same time, the government has to ensure the law is being put into practice and that it’s not being violated,” she said.

Anti-abortion protests

Not only in Castile and León, but also in other parts of Spain, “there are still people praying in front of clinics with the aim of hindering women’s right to abortion and trying to convince them through fear or guilty," Infante Castrillo flagged.

Between February 22 and April 2 this year, pro-life group 40 Days for Life convened anti-abortion protestors to pray outside of selected abortion clinics across the country for 40 days. According to the latest official data from 2021, 84,3% of the country’s abortions took place in private clinics, making it easy for pro-life protesters to target women on their way to have the procedure.

In the country's capital, for example, close to all abortions take place in private, concerted clinics that have an agreement with the government.

"It’s very easy for the anti-choice collectives to harass women because they know where to go, especially in the city of Madrid where there are only seven authorised clinics," Gemma Candela, from the Commission for Abortion in Madrid, told Euronews.

Since April, a change to Spain’s penal code considers it a criminal act to obstruct women’s right to abortion, which can now be punished with up to one year in prison. Yet, pro-life protesters continue to harass and target women in Madrid, and the police don't take any action to remove them saying they are only praying and don’t constitute a threat, said Candela.

Feminist groups estimate that some 8,000 women seeking abortions have faced harassment since 2010, and a 2018 report from an association of accredited abortion clinics, ACAI, found that 89% of women having had an abortion felt harassed and that 66% felt threatened.

According to the association, the new regulation now has to be applied around the clinics but the lack of specificity around how many metres constitute a “safe zone” could make it difficult for police officers to apply the law.

On May 28, Spaniards will head to the polls to elect over 8,000 local councillors and 12 regional governments, a vote that’s expected to set the stage for the general election in December. Many of the feminist organisations and women’s rights groups Euronews spoke to fear abortion rights might be threatened should the far-right party Vox manage to gain more seats and influence.

In La Rioja, Fernández Núñez is worried the local government might take a conservative turn. “If the People’s Party gets back into government, judging by what’s happening in neighbouring communities and the fact that during all these years the [local] government didn’t implement the [existing abortion] law, there’s no doubt they would dismantle the services,” she said.