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Spain Scraps Plan to Tighten Abortion Law

Madrid, Spain – 23/09/2014 – as published by The Wall Street Journal. 

Spain’s government withdrew a bill that would have imposed some of Europe’s strictest curbs on abortion, bowing to popular sentiment and dissent within the ruling conservative Popular Party.

The decision Tuesday by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on one of the most divisive social issues in this largely Roman Catholic country prompted sharp protests from some of his party’s core supporters. His justice minister, the bill’s chief advocate, resigned.

Mr. Rajoy’s party made the bill a campaign promise before sweeping to power in 2011, largely as a result of voter discontent over Spain’s economic slump. The bill proposed allowing abortion only for women whose pregnancies result from rape or threaten them with serious health risks. Polls this year showed as many as 80% of Spaniards opposed the bill.

With municipal and national elections looming next year, Mr. Rajoy appeared willing to risk alienating social conservatives and Catholic Church leaders in order to stem a broader erosion of support. He said the government had done all it could to achieve a multiparty consensus for the change but had failed. The bill, adopted by his cabinet in December, won’t be submitted to parliament, his office said.

“We can’t have a law that will be changed when another government comes in,” he said.

Instead, Mr. Rajoy said he would seek a less-controversial reform of the current law—one that would require parental consent for abortions on girls 16 and 17 years old. The law now requires such consent only for girls younger than 16.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruíz Gallardon, architect of the tougher restrictions, resigned shortly after the prime minister’s statement. “I am not the person to lead, with conviction, this new reform proposed by the government,” he said.

It was the first rupture within the cabinet Mr. Rajoy assembled nearly three years ago, exclusively from his conservative party. The minister’s departure left the government without its top legal officer as it prepared to ask the Constitutional Court to outlaw the Catalonia region’s plan for a nonbinding referendum on independence from Spain.

Spain brought its abortion law into line with much of Europe in 2010. The law passed that year, under a Socialist government, allows women to opt for abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, and up to 22 weeks if the fetus is seriously deformed or if the birth poses a serious health risk to the mother.

The bill withdrawn Tuesday would have rescinded much of the 2010 law. Backed by senior Catholic bishops, the bill would have made it more difficult for a woman to cite mental distress over an unwanted pregnancy as a health risk. It would have also reduced the catalog of prenatal defects a woman and her doctor could cite to legally justify an abortion.

Abortion is widely legal in the early stages of pregnancy in most of Europe. It is outlawed only in Malta and Andorra. Ireland legalized abortion last year under limited circumstances. Restrictions also apply in the U.K., Poland, Finland, Cyprus and Luxembourg.

According to the World Health Organization, abortion rates in Spain are close to the European Union average. Their numbers have risen from nearly 60,000 in 1999 to 112,000 in 2012, the most recent year for which Spanish government estimates are available. About 500 girls under 18 got abortions without parental consent in 2012, according to the estimates.

Abortion-rights advocates held rallies in several European cities early this year to protest the Spanish legislation. Spain became a battleground between advocates on both sides. Members of FEMEN, the international feminist group, protested topless inside the Spanish parliament. Down the street, Spain’s Right to Life group erected a sign showing a hand dangling a naked infant over the jaws of a crocodile.

Several high-ranking members of Mr. Rajoy’s party spoke out against the bill. Mr. Ruíz Gallardon nonetheless promised that it would go to parliament by the end of summer, confident that the party’s majority there would push it through.

Mr. Rajoy came under growing pressure in recent weeks to drop the bill or move to a vote.

Gádor Joya, a spokeswoman for Right to Life, said after Mr. Rajoy’s decision that the group would campaign against his party. “This government made a promise to change the law,” she said, and “doesn’t deserve the confidence of Spanish voters.”

Isabel Serrano, a spokeswoman for Decidir, an abortion-rights group, said: “We are back to a place we should never have left—the European standard, where a woman’s decision is respected and abortions are carried out in conditions of safety and equality for all.”

Mr. Rajoy, she added, “decided that there were elections coming and the population was against a change in the law.”