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Associated Press Worldstream, February 20, 2009

Spain set to loosen abortion law


DATELINE: MADRID -- Spain is on course to ease its restrictive law on abortion, setting the stage for another clash between a Socialist government that has already introduced sweeping social changes and conservatives and Catholic clergy bent on preserving traditional family values.

A parliamentary committee took the first step this week, recommending that the government legalize early stage abortions, while gradually imposing more restrictions as pregnancies progress.

Abortion is technically a crime in Spain, though it is readily available under the current system, with women needing a doctor's certification that their health either physical or mental would be at risk if the pregnancy was allowed to proceed. In theory, such pregnancies can be terminated at any stage. The current law, which dates from 1985, also allows abortion in the first 12 weeks in case of rape, and 22 weeks in case of fetal malformation.

Last year, more than 100,000 abortions were carried out in Spain one of the higher rates in Europe.

Church and pro-life groups say the mental health clause in the current law has effectively allowed abortions in almost any case, since it is vague enough to apply to nearly any woman who wants to carry out the procedure. While the vast majority of abortions in Spain are carried out in the first trimester, they point to several cases where women have claimed mental anguish to obtain late-term abortions.

Proponents of the proposed new law say the legislation is about treating women with respect, allowing them to make their own reproductive decisions rather than forcing them to seek a doctor's approval.

"What we are talking about is for women not to face persecution when they decide about their own motherhood," lawmaker Carmen Monton, a spokesperson for the ruling Socialist party on the committee that recommended changing the law, told The Associated Press. "The reaction (from the church and the opposition conservatives) has been over the top, but it is not going to break our resolve or change our minds that this law needs to be changed."

Some say the government is going too far, pushing this Roman Catholic country further away from its traditional values.

"Abortion is bad. It is bad for women and it is bad for society," said Sandra Moneo, the parliamentary spokeswoman for the opposition Popular Party. "A woman cannot have a right to something that is bad for her."

Monsignor Martinez Camino, president of the Spanish Bishops Conference, denounced the proposed law in strikingly political terms, saying it targeted the defenseless.

"The unborn don't vote," he said. "They don't organize."

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has clashed repeatedly with the church since he came to power in 2004.

The Socialist leader has pushed through legislation legalizing gay marriage, allowing for fast-track divorces and giving increased rights to transsexuals, among other changes. He also dropped plans by the previous conservative government to make religious education part of the core curriculum in public schools, deeply angering religious leaders.

And the church has pushed back, holding pro-family rallies that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people, and beatifying hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and nuns killed by Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. When Pope Benedict XVI performed Mass during a 2006 visit to Spain, he made an impassioned defense of traditional marriage. Zapatero did not attend.

While Zapatero has shown a willingness to take on the church before, there are signs that politicians are proceeding cautiously this time around.

After months of deliberation, the committee report released Wednesday was short on detail, saying early term abortion should be allowed without condition, but taking a pass on when precisely restrictions should begin to phase in.

Dr. Sergio Munoz, a spokesperson for an association of Spanish abortion clinics, told the AP a new law was necessary to protect women and doctors from frivolous lawsuits, but he said he had hoped to see more specifics coming out of the committee.

In early 2008, some 25 women and doctors were arrested in raids on abortion clinics in Madrid accused of falsifying doctors' certificates. The raids sparked a nationwide strike by the clinics, and forced the government to fast-track the new legislation.

Observers believe that ultimately the law will allow women to seek abortions up to somewhere between the 12th and 14th week of pregnancy without having to seek permission. A doctor's note would be required for abortions carried out from that point until somewhere between the 22nd and 24th week, and after that the procedure would only be allowed in cases of severe deformation of the fetus or if the mother's life was at risk.

Monton, the ruling party lawmaker, said she expected the process of changing the law to take months, perhaps even until the end of the year.

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