THE BLOG
09/25/2014 07:06 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Spain Backs Away From Anti-Abortion Reforms

It's not just the United States that struggles over competing beliefs about abortion.

In Spain, pro-choice advocates won one of their biggest international victories of the decade when the country's conservative government this week backed down on plans to implement a restrictive new abortion law.

Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón resigned Tuesday after prime minister Mariano Rajoy's cabinet dropped plans for legislation that would heavily restrict abortion rights in the European Union's fifth-most populous country. The law would have largely rolled back liberalizations enacted by the previous center-left government of prime minister José Luis Zapatero.

Though Rajoy and the People's Party (PP) promised abortion reforms in the campaign that led to their election in December 2011, the legislation has been stalled by political opposition, not just from regional and leftist parties, but within corners of the People's Party itself, including several prominent party leaders. They include the regional president of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who in January called on the national government to tone down the ambitions of its abortion bill, and the deputy speaker of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), Celia Villalobos.

Nevertheless, Gallardón had increasingly staked his credibility as justice minister on the bill's success, arguing earlier this year that the legislation would advance by the end of the summer. That didn't happen and, on Friday, Rajoy's cabinet refused to advance the bill.

The abortion bill would have eliminated first-trimester on-demand abortions, which were legalized in Spain only in 2010 when the Zapatero government liberalized abortion laws that correspond to standards generally applicable across the European Union.

If Gallardón had succeeded, abortion would have become, once again, legal only in the cases of rape and incest and in the event that the health or life of the mother is at stake. Gallardón's reforms would have even eliminated a long-standing exception, established in the first wave of abortion decriminalization in 1985, on the basis of fetal deformities.

In backing away from the issue, Rajoy said on Tuesday that the cabinet had taken a 'sensible' position, though his government still hopes to introduce rules that would require 16- and 17-year-olds to obtain parental consent prior to terminating a pregnancy.

The Zapatero-era abortion law allows women to terminate unwanted pregnancies for up to 14 weeks or, in certain circumstances, such as fetal abnormalities, up to 22 weeks.

Though it was an unqualified political defeat for Gallardón, it's probably a smart political move for the Rajoy government, which must face voters no later than December 2015. The abortion bill has alienated moderates and female voters who might otherwise be inclined to support Rajoy and the center-right.

A September 15 Invymark poll shows that the PP still has the most support, 29.2%, but that three leftist parties split a much larger share of the vote. The center-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), under the leadership of the young economist Pedro Sánchez, would win 20.7%, the rising Podemos, which emerged from the 'indignado' movement of unemployed Spanish workers, would win 17.6%, and the communist United Left (IU) would win 7.4%.

Sánchez is desperate to win back traditional leftist voters, who are still angry with the PSOE's efforts to raise taxes and trim budgets before the Rajoy government took power (which has increased taxes and cut spending even further in a bid to avoid a European-level bailout). But if the PSOE and Podemos joined forces after the next election, their coalition might easily form a new government.

Entering election season still championing a divisive abortion reform bill would have made Rajoy's path to reelection even more difficult. Though Spain remains a highly Catholic and largely conservative society, it also has a tradition of permissiveness with respect to personal matters, and it was the third European country to legalize same-sex marriage, which preceded the Zapatero government's abortion liberalization reforms by five years.

It's perhaps most baffling why the Rajoy government remained committed to the law at all when Zapatero's reforms seemed so uncontroversial. The insistence on rolling back the abortion reforms has led to speculation over the influence of Opus Dei within Rajoy's party, and also that the government was keen on using abortion as a wedge issue to distract from Spanish economic depression and unemployment.

Though anti-abortion activists have decried the government's decision, Rajoy is unlikely to pay a strong political price in backing away from the abortion bill. Unlike in neighboring Portugal, there's no Spanish social conservative party to pressure the PP from the religious right, or in neighboring France, a far-right group like Front national (National Front) that, despite its emphasis on immigration and European integration, has staked out social conservative positions on traditional 'values' issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Given the fragmentation of Spain's once solidly two-party system, which tracks the country's deep economic depression and unemployment, it's perhaps surprising that a populist conservative alternative hasn't emerged to Rajoy's PP.

Gallardón, a great-grandson of perhaps Spain's leading composer for piano, Isaac Albéniz, is a madrileño by birth, and Madrid is where he has made his political career -- elected to the city council in 1983, to Madrid's assembly in 1987, as president of the autonomous community of Madrid in 1995 and as mayor of the city of Madrid in 2003 -- until he became a member of the Rajoy government in December 2011 as justice minister.

Gallardón on Tuesday not only resigned as Spain's justice minister, but announced his complete retirement from politics, including as a deputy in the Spanish parliament and his leadership positions within the party:

"In life, you have to be consistent," he added. "I really wanted to tell PP voters and anyone else who believed in our project that this was going to be successful. But sometimes great achievements take longer than one thinks. And I am convinced that the debate that has opened up here on such a sensitive issue is a positive thing for Spain, despite the personal costs to myself."

Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and the editor and chief policy analyst of Suffragio.org.