Spain Mulls Easing Strict Abortion Law

Spain has taken a first step toward amending its restrictive law on abortion, a government minister said Thursday, moving to fill one of the last big gaps in a drive for sweeping social change in this traditionally Roman Catholic country.

A panel of 13 lawyers, doctors and other experts has been appointed to come up with recommendations for the Socialist government on how to amend the current law, Equality Minister Bibiana Aido told reporters.

She said she expects a bill to be presented to Parliament in the first six months of 2009, but could not specify if it would provide for abortion on demand up to 12 to 14 weeks into a pregnancy, as demanded by pro-choice campaigners.

The current law, which dates from 1985, allows abortion in the first 12 weeks in case of rape, 22 weeks in case of fetal malformation, and at any time if a psychiatrist certifies that the mother's physical or mental health is endangered.

The vast majority of the roughly 100,000 abortions carried out in Spain each year fall into the latter category, according to the Association of Accredited Abortion Clinics. Abortion foes call it a loophole that is grossly abused.

Aido said the current law has to be changed because Spain's 17 semiautonomous regions, which administer their own health care systems, apply the legislation unevenly, with women in some areas having trouble getting the procedure performed or obtaining government financing to which they are entitled.

"This cannot be," Aido said.

When Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero came to power in 2004, he embarked on an ambitious program of social change that eventually saw Spain legalize gay marriage and enact fast-track divorce proceedings. Along the way, he infuriated the church and the conservative opposition.

In the campaign leading up to the 2004 election, Zapatero had promised abortion on demand but after taking power he eventually dropped the issue.

United Left, a small party in Parliament, has said the Socialist Party told lawmakers it had already angered too many people by engaging in peace talks with armed Basque separatists and granting more autonomy to the Catalonia region and did not want to pick another fight.

Zapatero won re-election in March of this year and has been saying ever since that abortion reform would once again be a priority.

During the campaign, however, his Socialists steered way clear of the issue, as did the conservative Popular Party. So sensitive is the issue politically that both were wary of spooking centrist voters.

In January, about 40 abortion clinics went on strike for five days to protest what they called police harassment in raids targeting facilities that were allegedly carrying out illegal abortions.

Some of the clinics targeted were in Madrid, and they blamed the campaign here on conservatives who run the regional government.
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