Why Does Spain Love Gay Marriage But Hate Abortion?

Spain’s about to become the most repressive country in the EU when it comes to abortion rights—even as it has embraced gay marriage. It’s a disconnect that is the canary in the coal mine for Europe’s women.

03.07.14 10:45 AM ET

With an extremely restrictive abortion ban heading towards a vote, Spain is on the verge of becoming the first country within the European Union to actually move backwards on abortion rights.

For a country that has enjoyed a fairly liberal social and sexual culture in recent decades, the backtracking on abortion—the proposed law would make the procedure illegal except in cases of rape or endangerment to the mother’s life— is all the more shocking. And it comes only four years after Spain dramatically expanded the original 1985 law permitting abortion, easing restrictions on abortion access.

And the country hasn’t just been progressive on women’s issues, either. Spain became one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage way back in 2005.

However, abortion laws have become a major target of the ruling conservative Partido Popular, which took power in 2011 after nearly a decade of Socialist Party rule.  The current Justice Minister, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, has been unwavering in his commitment to rolling back the 2010 abortion provisions. In December of 2013, he announced the party’s goal to ensure that a “woman can only abort if she is in danger, and if it is due to a sexual assault.”  To add to the restrictions, under that proposed bill a woman would have to file a prior complaint even in these two allowed cases before she is permitted to have abortion.

Yet the rest of Spain has not become so socially conservative overnight. “The polls show they [Partido Popular] are completely out of touch with population at large,” says Johanna Westeson, the Regional Director of Europe for the Reproductive Rights Center. In fact, one survey showed 80 percent of the population disapproved of the proposed restrictions. Even Celia Villalobos, who is a member of Partido Popular and is the deputy speaker of Spain’s Parliament, criticized the proposal, saying “We’re not in 1985 anymore. We’re in 2014, and things have changed.”

Yet, in contrast to the extreme and apparently unpopular battle against abortion rights in Spain, gay-marriage rights have survived there.  Though attempts to end gay marriage were made, Partido Popular ultimately left it up to the Constitutional Court, which upheld gay marriage. In fact, Gallardón went out of his way to say that he did not think Partido Popular should interfere with gay marriage.

Against the backdrop of their tolerance, if not embrace, of same-sex marriage, Partido Popular’s fervent decision to go after abortion rights might seem peculiar. However, the schism between Spain’s treatment of the two controversial issues is not that unusual, at least in recent years. Westeson said “The notion that opposition to liberal abortion laws and LGBT rights go hand in hand in Europe does not at all hold.” As an example, she cited how Ireland, which has a near ban on abortion, is fast moving towards legalizing same-sex marriage.

She believes that one of the reasons LGBT rights appear to be advancing faster in Europe than abortion rights is because of the policies of the European Union. “The EU has very strong protections against discrimination, including sexual orientation, whereas issue related to health and reproductive health are completely outside of the EU,” she says. “If a country is interested in restricting rights for same sex couples, it’s much harder in the EU context.”

Gillian Kane, a Senior Policy Adviser at Ipas, an international reproductive-rights group, has also noticed what she sees as the “mainstreaming” of LGBT rights in recent years while abortion rights are facing a backlash in many countries. “My own pet theory is that abortion is a women’s issue. It’s gendered. Gay marriage isn’t, and it involves men. That makes it more mainstream,” she says. “You see it in the States, too.”

Whether it’s for the gendered reasoning that Kane suggests, the United States does reflect a similar discrepancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, between 2011 and 2013, more abortion restrictions were enacted than in any previous decade.  At the very same time, same-sex marriage enjoyed a rise in positive public opinion.

Abortion-rights advocates by no means seek to detract from LGBT movement or begrudge it victories. But purely from a policy perspective, it is a bewildering pattern. Kane believes conservatives like Partido Popular have pushed abortion restrictions because, unlike same-sex marriage, it is “framed as an issue of life, not an issue of rights,” she said. “In terms of wedge issues, it’s a way to get people on board.”

And mobilizing the masses may be what’s of greater concern to Partido Popular than the issue of abortion itself, especially as the country still struggles with a bad economy.

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“What we see now in many countries is to use it [abortion] to distract from the very real economic matters that are very serious, and Spain is one of the hardest hit,” said Westeson. “Morality issues surrounding women’s bodies tend to be a distraction from other issues that are critical now.”

Ana Prata, a professor at the California State University, Northridge, also suspects that conservatives in Spain may be playing abortion politics as “smoke and mirrors to distract from debating things that could be more challenging.”

Regardless of the exact motives, with Partido Popular in control of Spain’s government, the abortion bill is likely to pass in at least some form. That could be bad news not only for women seeking abortions in Spain, but all over Europe.

“I am afraid we will see a snowball effect in other countries,” said Westeson. “Conservative groups in many countries are looking towards Spain, and they will get motivation if the law passes. I’ve heard that groups in France and Germany are eagerly following what’s happening.”

Still, even if Spain’s proposal passes Parliament in its full form, it is unlikely to silence the national and global community. Thousands have protested in Madrid, and FEMEN already staged a topless protest chanting, “Abortion is sacred.”  By all accounts, these women are ready for a battle.

“Womens’ rights over their bodies aren’t usually given for free by the government,” says Prata. “They usually have to fight.”