(Published in: The Times, July 12, 2008)
Abortion reform provokes new battle with bishops
by Thomas Catán in Madrid
Plans to relax strict abortion and euthanasia laws and a proposed ban on Catholic symbols at state events have put Spain’s Socialist Government on course for a showdown with the Roman Catholic Church.
Against expectations the country’s ruling party has adopted a slate of proposals from rank-and-file members at its annual conference that are likely to enrage the Vatican.
“We are going to do these things, and we’ll start soon,” the Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said. “We won’t take a step backwards.”
The country’s Left-leaning Prime Minister, a self-declared agnostic, became a bête noire of the Catholic Church during his first term in office by legalising same-sex marriage, introducing fast-track divorce and allowing embryonic stem-cell research.
Spanish bishops were also outraged by his decision to pull religious instruction from the school curriculum, replacing it with “citizenship” classes that opponents say are an attempt to inculcate children with leftist ideals. However, the Government’s latest batch of measures are arguably the most controversial, touching on issues — such as abortion and euthanasia — that are anathema to the Holy See. Pope Benedict XVI has made the fight against secularisation in Europe a chief concern of his papacy. Spain, a former Catholic bastion that has become one of the most socially liberal countries in Europe, has emerged as a key battleground. “The Government is sending Spanish society on a macabre journey into a culture of death,” said Leopoldo Vives of the Spanish Episcopal Conference. “I dare say the next thing they will propose is infanticide for children suffering from serious diseases.” Spain’s combative bishops are unlikely to take the latest measures lying down.
In December they led a 150,000-strong march in support of the traditional family, which quickly turned into an anti-Government tirade. Relations between the Church and the Government reached a nadir before the March general election, when Spanish bishops called on the faithful to vote against Mr Zapatero. In return, the Prime Minister threatened to review state funding for the Church, which receives some € 5 billion (£4 billion) a year from the Spanish taxpayer.
This time round, the Government says that it hopes the bishops will not take to the streets again. “It would be better if those acts were not repeated,” the Government’s director of church relations, José María Contreras, told El País. If they do, “it won’t stop the Government from adopting measures or decisions set out in its electoral programme, which were backed by the majority of Spaniards at the polls”.
Under current Spanish law pregnancies can be terminated only until the 12th week in cases of rape or until the 22nd week in cases of severe foetal malformation. But there is no time limit on abortions if there is a risk to the mother’s physical or mental health. The majority of abortions are carried out alleging a risk to the mother’s mental health, something that opponents say is a flagrant abuse of the law. Catholic groups also say the 22-week limit is widely flouted.
The Government vowed yesterday to revise the abortion law, saying that it favoured the system used by Britain under which abortions are freely available until the 24th week of pregnancy.
Spain’s ruling party also vowed to launch a consultation for a new law allowing doctors “a more active intervention in the right to a dignified death”. And it promised to do away with Christian symbols at state events.