FOCUS: How women in Spain face barriers despite abortion being legal

When Spanish doctor Marta Vigara was 17 weeks pregnant, her waters broke and she quickly realised the prognosis for her pregnancy was "very bad".

FOCUS: How women in Spain face barriers despite abortion being legal
Geriatric doctor Marta Vigara, who could not have a therapeutic abortion at the hospital where she works, poses at her home in Madrid on February 10, 2022. - Women in Spain still face obstacles when they choose to terminate a pregnancy even though abortion was decriminalised in 1985, a situation Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government wants to change. No official statistics exist on how many objecting doctors exist in Spain. But according to the Spanish Doctors Order the "majority" of obstetrician-gynaecologists who work in the public sector are "conscientious objectors", a term coined by pacifists who refuse military service. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

A geriatric specialist working at Madrid’s Clínico San Carlos hospital, she immediately went to her colleagues in the gynaecology department to have a therapeutic abortion.

Such a procedure can be carried out when a woman’s life is in danger or the foetus has a severe abnormality.

But no doctor would do it on grounds there was still “a foetal heartbeat”, directing her to a private clinic instead.

“I arrived at the clinic bleeding, probably because of a detached placenta,” the 37-year-old told AFP at her Madrid apartment where she recounted the ordeal she lived through in December 2020.

Vigara later learnt that the entire gynaecology unit at Clinico San Carlos had declared themselves “conscientious objectors” against abortion.

Her experience illustrates how women in Spain still face obstacles when choosing to terminate a pregnancy even though abortion was decriminalised in 1985.

It’s a situation Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s leftist government wants to change.

There are no official statistics on how many doctors object to abortion in Spain.

But according to the OMC Spanish doctors’ association, “most” obstetrician-gynaecologists who work in the public sector are “conscientious objectors”, a term coined by pacifists who refuse military service.

That explains why 84.5 percent of abortions carried out in 2020 – the last available official figures – were done privately, with the state footing the bill.

In some regions, women travel hundreds of kilometres for an abortion because there is no private clinic nearby and the local hospital will not perform the procedure.

In eight of Spain’s 50 provinces, no abortion has been carried out since the procedure was decriminalised in 1985, the government says.

It is preparing a law to guarantee access to the procedure at public hospitals, with the issue set to be a central theme at Spain’s International Women’s Day marches on Tuesday.

Anti-abortion ‘ambulance’

Even when women can reach a private clinic, they are sometimes confronted by anti-abortion activists en route who pepper them with uncomfortable questions or prayers.

For the past decade, psychiatrist Jesus Poveda has gathered regularly with his team of “rescuers” outside the Dator private abortion clinic in Madrid to try and persuade women not to end their pregnancies.

A member (L) of “40 dias por la vida” (40 days for life), an international anti-abortion organisation that campaigns against abortion through prayer, speaks with a woman outside the Emece private hospital in Barcelona on October 28, 2021. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

They invite women to enter a van equipped with an ultrasound machine which they call an “ambulance” to show them that what they’re carrying “is a living being”, says Poveda, who teaches at Madrid’s Autonomous University.

A draft law that passed its first reading in Spain’s parliament in February will ban such protests outside abortion clinics as “harassment”.

“We will keep coming,” says Poveda, who has vowed to “get around the law” if it gets final approval, as expected.

The Catholic Association of Propagandists (ACdP) launched an ad campaign against the bill in January with posters in 33 cities reading: “Praying in front of abortion clinics is great.”

Dropping parental consent

Sanchez’s government also wants to modify the law so minors of 16 and 17 can terminate a pregnancy without their parents’ consent, as is the case in Britain and France.

These youngsters can decide for themselves whether to “undergo a life or death operation, yet parental consent is required to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy,” Equality Minister Irene Montero said last month.

Staunchly Catholic Spain decriminalised abortion in 1985 in cases of rape, if a foetus is malformed or if a birth poses a serious physical or psychological risk to the mother.

The scope of the law was broadened in 2010 by the previous socialist government to allow abortion on demand in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

But in 2015, a conservative Popular Party government tried to roll back the changes but had to back down in the face of strong public opposition.

Instead, it introduced the parental consent requirement for minors which exists in most European nations.

Vigara is hoping “things will change”.

“When they send you away (to a private clinic), you feel a bit stigmatised as if you’re doing something wrong. I felt very guilty and very miserable.”

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Noisy local fiestas: What to do when your Spanish town hall is responsible

Town and city fiestas are commonplace in Spain and they’re part of what made many of us fall in love with the country in the first place, but sometimes the town hall can overstep and the noise pollution just gets too much to bear for neighbours.

Noisy local fiestas: What to do when your Spanish town hall is responsible

It’s bad enough in Spain when you have to deal with noisy neighbours or loud bars and clubs, but what about when the culprit is your ayuntamiento (town hall) or city council?

If you want to know what your rights are on noise from construction, find out here, what to do about noisy neighbours here and about bars and clubs here

During these local fiestas (every city, town and village has at least one a year), councils set up concert and performance venues form of open-air stages or tents called casetas or carpas.

In these cases, there’s often no sound insulation and the noise carries much further as everything happens outside.

Even though these festivals may only go one for a week or two, they can often disturb residents who aren’t in attendance and are trying to sleep.

You could be someone who needs extra sleep like a doctor, nurse or firefighter, you may be ill or have small children, there are many reasons why you might not be able or want to join in. Even if you are in the minority, your rights should still be respected.

In fact, in places such as Barcelona, when the local Gràcia festival takes place, there’s so much noise created by neighbourhood organisers that some people even decide to leave their apartments for the week as they know they won’t be able to sleep.

This option is of course not open to everyone, and in truth, you shouldn’t have to leave your home temporarily because of a celebration that is supposed to bring joy to the local population.

So, what can you legally do and what are your rights?

Even city and town councils must continue to comply with municipal by-laws during local fiestas. The Spanish Civil Code guarantees that you should have respect in your own home.

Law 40/2015, of October 1st, on the Legal Regime of the Public Sector, which came into force in October 2016, establishes that “Public Administrations objectively serve the general interests and act in accordance with the principles of effectiveness, hierarchy, decentralisation and coordination, with full submission to the Constitution and the Law”. 

This means that even the authorities must uphold the law and serve their people. They have a public responsibility to manage and to do it to the best of their abilities.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you stand a much better chance of getting your council to listen if you find other people who are affected too, so it’s not just you complaining on your own.

Make sure to talk to your neighbours or others living on the same street to find out if they’re also affected by the noise and form a group of people who share your grievances.

In theory, councils and ayuntamientos are in charge of enforcing celebration schedules, making sure the volume of music isn’t too loud, controlling the capacity at venues and enforcing alcohol laws so that people are not drinking on the street (if it’s not allowed in that region).

READ ALSO – FACT CHECK: No, Spain’s Balearics haven’t banned tourists from drinking alcohol

According to Law 7/2002 on protection against noise pollution, these are the maximum sound levels allowed for leisure venues:

Nightclubs: 104 decibels

Venues with musical entertainment: 90 decibels

Game rooms: 85 decibels

Bars and restaurants: 80 decibels

Find out if the festival events and activities infringe on any of these rules and regulations above and if they do then you have a case to take to your town hall.

Technically, the festivals should take place at a local fairground or somewhere away from the main residential area, but we know that this is not always the case. The concerts and events often happen in the very streets and squares where people live.

Firstly, you need to contact your ayuntamiento or local council or explain the problem. It’s best if you put it in writing so there’s a record of what you’ve said.

Try to include as much evidence as possible as to how the festivals are breaking the rules and include testimonials from as many neighbours as you can.

Organisers may not listen to you the first time, but if you keep contacting them, they will be forced to listen and have to respond.

If the situation is the same every year and they still don’t change anything, then you and your neighbours should contact a lawyer to represent you and take the matter to court.

This has actually been done several times by different communities throughout the country and in many instances, the law has sided with the people instead of the authorities.

In 2017, the Superior Court of Justice of Navarra, sided with a community of owners in Mutilva Baja when they complained about noise coming from an outdoor tent which had been erected for the festivities of the local patron saint. They claimed it was noise pollution above the legal levels and said the council had done nothing to try and reduce it.  

In another case in Getafe, thanks to a neighbourhood protest led by a lawyer specialising in noise pollution called Ricardo Ayala, the carnival celebrations were moved to the fairgrounds on the outskirts of the city.

Again in 2022, in Castilla-La Mancha, the Supreme Justice Tribunal imposed a sentence on the the Puerto Lápice City Council due to damages derived from noise pollution from musical events held in the town square.

The celebrations were not forced to be stopped completely but the council did have to agree with a limitation on hours and noise levels specifically for the concerts held in tents outside. It did not affect any other part of the festival.

Therefore, it is possible to take legal action against your ayuntamiento if they are breaking the law, but there’s no guarantee it will be a straightforward process.