Religious right rallies against abortion

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A FIERCE religious backlash is mounting in Spain and Portugal against attempts in both countries to liberalise their abortion laws. Recent outbursts from Roman Catholic priests demonstrate that the church - despite its declining social influence in recent years - continues to be a vociferous force.

Last week the Archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Ricard Maria Carles, made a virulent outburst against plans to extend Spain's existing law, permitting abortion under specific conditions. "Despite the velvet, and the carpets and the noble atmosphere of the Congress of Deputies, that chamber is no different from certain surgeons' dustbins where unborn babies are thrown," Cardinal Carles wrote in his parochial letter. Children's lives, he went on "depend on the individual conscience" of MPs.

"What a shame! When they are born the law will protect their lives, but in their mother's womb they depend on the decision of others. I always thought that was the safest place for a person to be... But no, our civilisation - I dare not call it culture - is making the womb the most dangerous place for a child."

The cardinal published his message ahead of time last Tuesday to coincide with an attempt by left-wing Spanish MPs to schedule a debate on abortion before the summer recess. Their efforts to secure parliamentary time were blocked by Spain's conservative government, and the Socialists and pro-communist United Left party will have to reapply in the autumn.

The left-wing parties have united to propose a fourth condition under which a pregnancy may be terminated: if the socio-economic conditions of the parents make it advisable. At present, abortion is legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape, if the foetus is malformed or if the mother's health is at risk. A previous debate on the fourth condition, in February, ended in a tied vote.

The Church's argument assumes that criminalising abortions will reduce their number, an assumption contradicted by the experience of Franco's dictatorship, when Spain had one of the highest abortion rates in the world even though all abortions were illegal. In 1974, a year before Franco died, the Supreme Court reckoned 300,000 were carried out annually - 40 per cent the number of of live births. During the 1970s another 14,000 Spanish women came to London for abortions every year.

However, a movement for abortion on demand never really took off in Spain and the existing law - among the least liberal in Europe - was passed by a foot-dragging Socialist government only in 1985. Pro-choice opinion seems to have gathered strength, but even supposedly progressive politicians regard further liberalisation as a hot potato. While the Socialists are making the running now, they gave the issue a wide berth in the closing stages of their government in 1995: at that time the combined votes of the left-wing parties would have ensured victory for abortion on socio- economic grounds.

The Socialist government in Portugal - buffeted by contradictory social pressures - is showing similar indecision. In the country's first ever referendum, to be held on 28 June, the Portuguese will be asked if they support abortion on demand in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, sweeping aside a number of existing restrictions.

Parliament approved the change in February, but the government bowed to religious pressure and agreed to put the issue to a referendum before going ahead. The ruling Socialists are themselves divided: the party favours liberalisation and will campaign for it, but the Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, is a devout Catholic and will vote "no".

As in Spain, the Church has launched a vehement campaign of opposition to any change. Priests addressing thousands of devout pilgrims at Portugal's sacred site of Fatima on 13 May - celebrating the vision of the Virgin that appeared before three peasant children in 1917 - seized upon the opportunity to condemn abortion. "No" badges were handed out and wax 10- week foetuses were widely available, plus the usual supply of wax body parts.

The Bishop of Viseu, head of Portugal's Episcopal Commission for the Family, compared liberalisation to the Nazi death camps and said: "Anyone who votes for abortion is not a Christian, which means they should quit the Church." And the Bishop of Braga, a northern city renowned as a redoubt of clerical reaction, said he would refuse to celebrate Mass or deliver his Sunday sermon if the "yes" vote should win.

None the less, an opinion poll published this month in Lisbon's conservative Diario de Noticias newspaper showed 55.6 per cent voting "yes". Abortion was decriminalised in deeply Catholic Portugal in 1984, but so hedged with conditions that most abortions continued to be illegal. Officially, only 280 abortions were carried out last year, but health workers put the real figure closer to 16,000. They say botched abortions are the main cause of maternal mortality in Portugal.