Those European nations, including Britain, that have achieved something like a consensus on the issue of abortion are the fortunate ones. In others, and notably those with a strong Roman Catholic tradition, it is a perennially divisive and traumatic issue. When overlaid on to separatism and a deeply damaged economy it has the potential to retard the rebuilding of national identity and cohesion
So it is proving in Spain, where a new law severely restricting the right to abortion is wending its way through parliament, at the cost of bitter controversy and resistance. Some women are registering their bodies as their own property in a symbolic attempt to preserve the “abortion on demand” laws passed by the former socialist administration in 2010. Such is the sensitivity of the issue that the government went beyond the usual provision of a parliamentary free vote on a matter of conscience and took the extraordinary step of putting it to a secret ballot of MPs.
The mystery is why the current conservative government in Madrid chose this issue and this time to pick a fight with its progressive and radical opponents. True, it promised to tighten up a remarkably liberal approach to abortion in its election manifesto. It is also no secret that the Catholic Church, shaken by the revolution enacted by the socialists, has encouraged and campaigned for legislative action. It may also be a tactic to mobilise socially conservative voters to back the Popular Party in May’s European elections.
Whatever the short-term advantage, the government’s move is deeply damaging to Spain’s longer-term prospects. Predictably enough, regional parliaments in Catalonia and Andalusia have opposed the new law, and if they prove able to impose their own regulations, Spanish women in the rest of the country will simply be able to hop on to a train to find a clinic that will provide a legal and free termination. Otherwise they will simply travel to, say, France or Britain, just as Irish women had for many years to cross the sea to England. Thus will Madrid have suddenly made Spain’s troublesome separatists look compassionate and progressive.
The dilemma Madrid faces is not an easy one to resolve. Both this government and its predecessor can be blamed for using abortion as a politically expedient card to play, proposing extreme legal solutions to a deeply complex and morally perplexing challenge. There are no right answers, and the Spanish people must try to find a way of living with competing claims like others have.
What is unhelpful to such an outcome is when the issue of abortion and religion becomes closely aligned with party politics, such as has happened in America, where the religious right has captured the Republicans, much to their mutual detriment and the degradation of US politics as a whole.
With Spain’s economy still broken (youth unemployment remains the highest in Western Europe), her monarchy in crisis and the very legitimacy and unity of the Spanish state under constant assault from her provinces, this was surely one argument the Spanish people could do without.