Legal abortion and quality abortion care save women's lives, preserve our health, allow us to choose our futures and raise the children we may already have, and are core aspects of women's equality and reproductive justice. More than anything else, respectful abortion care decreases the suffering, pain, and death of women and girls everywhere.
And yet, throughout the world, abortion is still ferociously debated, women who are denied their reproductive rights still suffer and die, and abortion clinics and physicians are frequently maligned, threatened, attacked, arsoned, bombed, brutalized, and harassed. In the US, seven doctors and clinic staff have been assassinated, despite the fact that abortion has been legal in the US for thirty-five years.
Having worked in women's clinics providing safe and professional abortion care since 1970, I often wonder if the world even notices the good and important work we do. Due to the ongoing stigma of abortion, it is still very difficult and frightening for many women and men to openly discuss their abortion experiences. Indeed, due to the fear of being professionally marginalized and physically attacked, even killed, women's clinic staff are also cautious about discussing what they do in public.
How do we prove to the world what is obvious to us–that if safe abortion did not exist, women would suffer? If we simply went away, for a day or a week, how different would the world be? What would happen to women?
On January 7, our colleagues in Spain stood up for themselves and stated to the world that they will not be victims of governmental persecution and anti-choice manipulation. They decided to go on strike, accepting only "emergency" cases.
Private clinics in Spain, which perform most of the country's abortions, began the five-day strike to protest what they declared was persecution and harassment by government inspectors as well as anti-abortion rights campaigners. The intimidation and fear began in November, when government representatives and police agents invaded clinics in Barcelona with accusations that "illegal" abortions (abortions past the legal limit) were occurring. Medical records and documents were seized, 40 patients (some from out of the country) were harassed, and twelve clinical staff members, including physicians, were detained, among them Dr. Carlos Morín, the director, who was subsequently arrested and remains in jail. The complaints against these clinics were brought by the Catholic organization e-Christians, based on a report by a Danish television program where Dr. Morín is alleged to have offered an abortion to an eight-month pregnant undercover Danish journalist.
From then on, the situation became even more sensationalized. A woman from the Netherlands was arrested because she had supposedly undergone an illegal late-term abortion at one of Dr. Morín's clinics. Other women's health clinics in Madrid–not associated with Dr .Morín–were arbitrarily harassed, invaded, and disrupted under the guise of "official inspections."
The New York Times reported on January 9 that the persistent crackdown, raids, and violence against these clinics revives a debate about Spain's abortion laws at an awkward time for the Socialist government of Prime Minster José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had been trying to avoid so-called controversial issues before close elections occur in March. Under his leadership, the prime minister's party had previously discussed the reform of Spain's restrictive abortion laws. But now, with the prime minister's "liberal" image being viewed as a political liability, he is trying to polish his image as a moderate, attempting to appeal to undecided, younger, and conservative voters. (Sounds just like the US elections, doesn't it?) With the Socialist party presently leading only by a few percentage points, the prime minister now states that he no longer wishes to liberalize the current abortion laws and wants to only reassess the existing laws.
Abortion rights, and women's lives, just like in the US, are kicked around like a political football. However, it will be difficult to avoid this issue in Spain right now. After all, numerous women's lives were disrupted by the clinics' strike.
How many women were affected by the strike? According to Francisca García Gallego, Madrid regional director of the Association of Accredited Clinics for the Termination of Pregnancy, the organization which organized the strike, as many as 2,000 women likely felt its impact. She indicated that the striking clinics accepted only "medical emergency" cases for abortion care during this time, defined as when the mother's life or health was at risk. Women without medical emergencies who had appointments during the strike were seen before the stoppage or were given new appointments.
Spain decriminalized abortion in 1985, and under current law, women can have an abortion during the first 22 weeks of pregnancy if there is a risk of fetal defect, and in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape. It is also theoretically allowed at any time if a pregnant woman's physical or mental health is medically certified as being in danger. The number of abortions in Spain has doubled in the past decade, to more than 100,000 procedures annually in the past decade. Clearly, as is true everywhere in the world, this demonstrates that this is a critical right and much-need medical care that must remain available for all women.
The arrests at the Barcelona clinics soon created a backlash at all clinics throughout Spain. This backlash was encouraged by conservative media and anti-choice activists, which promoted a "Christian Family Day" rally organized by Catholic bishops in Madrid on December 30 where more than 150,000 people demonstrated to defend so-called "traditional family values" and speak out against abortion. The conservative media also created public alarm with a "flurry of media reports about women who allegedly travel to Spain to receive illegal late term abortions," says García, of the clinic association. Ms. García also asserted that cases of illegal abortion were extremely rare in Spain and that 90% of abortions in Spain occur in the first 12 weeks. She decried the abusive clinic inspections, invasions, and violence, stated that patients' privacy and dignity had been violated, and the professionalism and safety of clinic staff undermined. "After 22 years of exercising this right, a shadow of doubt has started to appear over our professionalism. We feel physically threatened, but nobody in the government has come to our defense."
During the strike, government officials in Madrid finally responded and pledged to protect abortion providers from the violence and harassment. Local abortion clinics were told that they could solicit police protection against death threats and vandalism caused by ultra-conservatives or neo-Nazi groups.
That recognition and action are important and long overdue. But is it enough? What of the future? Will there be more strikes? Will abortion providers in other countries consider this tactic? Having been in the honorable field of abortion care for many years, I know that abortion providers are tired of being dismissed, manipulated, attacked, lied about, and targets of political expediency and religious fundamentalist hatred and violence. We have every right to protect ourselves, to continue to help women, to practice our craft, and to professionally provide safe and compassionate abortion care. The time for ending the use of our profession as political pawns must come to an end–today.
As eloquently stated by the Association of Accredited Clinics for the Termination of Pregnancy and The Spanish Interest Group on Population, Development, and Reproductive Health,
We want to manifest our solidarity with the women, who are the real victims of the inspections, the accusations, the libel, the illicit activities, and the (official) silence. Because it is the thousands of women in this country who see, again, the questioning of their ability to exercise a legitimate right that is about freedom and the will to choose to have children. With these words, we want to assure these women that our efforts to make possible their rights will continue, as we have persevered in this country for the past twenty years.
In Spain, the US, and virtually everywhere, the stigma of shame and cruelty that has been relentlessly and systematically used to vilify those seeking and performing safe abortion care remains. The witch-hunts go on.