Copycat Culture of Death: Will Spain Adopt American-Style Abortion on Demand?

In late September, the Spanish parliament defeated by one vote a law that would have expanded the country’s abortion rights. In the wake of defeat, Spanish socialists and their allies pointed to the loss as evidence of an increasingly meddlesome and moralistic Catholic Church. “Women are not child factories,” exclaimed Cristina Almeida of the New Left communist party, “and we do not want to have children just to force them later into convents or into the hands of the archbishop.” Rosa Aguilar, spokeswoman for the coalition supporting the bill and a member of the New Left, rebuked the Church for being “intransigent and intolerant.”

The center-right Partido Popular (PP) offered little response to the angry chatter of the left. All one PP politician could muster was that the existing law concerning abortion “appeared sufficient.” The PP’s current leader, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, failed to support even modestly the pro-life position in public. Nobody in the secular political ring could be found to defend the rights of the unborn, and so the responsibility fell by default to Monsenor Yanes, the president of the Episcopal Conference. Monsenor Yanes carefully laid out the position of the Church, explaining the rational grounds upon which the Church stood. Yanes continued without equivocation, saying that “No Catholic politician could vote for this bill.” At the same time as he showed conviction, the monsenor also showed compassion for the troubled women considering abortion as their only option. Yanes urged concerned citizens to understand that women choose abortion not “solely for reasons of convenience or out of selfishness” but are frequently concerned about their health and their honor, and are often confronted with intense societal pressures. Still, Yanes emphasized that the need to understand these concerns of the mother can “never be used to justify morally the direct elimination of a human being.”

The coming and going of this most recent abortion fire-fight in Spain seems almost an irrelevant affair. Abortion is legal in Spain and has been since the Socialists passed the first law in 1985. Had this new law passed, the practical matter of obtaining an abortion in Spain would have changed very little. Today abortion is allowed in Spain in cases where the child is deformed, where the mother has been raped, or when the life or health of the mother is threatened. Of course, in the last permission lies the rub. As in the United States, the health of the mother includes mental health, and mental health remains a subjective claim. Ninety-eight percent of all legal abortions in Spain are justified as protecting the health of the mother.

But if abortion is legal and widely accessible in Spain and has been since 1985, why were Spanish Socialists and old-line communists so intent on passing new legislation to extend abortion rights? When this piece of legislation is viewed in isolation, the debate that occurred in September seems a parody of the real issue, an issue full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. However, if the recent abortion fight in Spain is seen through a wider lens, a different picture comes into focus. In the coming decade, Spain will cease to exist as it has since the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella began over five centuries ago. Some of Spain’s powers were already ceded to the European Union when Spain became a member in 1986. A common currency, the euro, was initiated this past January, and common institutions and lawmaking bodies headquartered in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Frankfurt are in the early stage of forging new standards for a more unified Europe.

A Scripted Conclusion?

A careful eye sees where the abortion question in Spain is heading. As power in Europe shifts from Paris, Madrid, and Rome to the bureaucratic capitals of Brussels and Frankfurt, the union ceases to be solely economic. The European Union has already engaged and will further engage the social issues of educational standards and health-care benefits, and today Europe is moving toward a consolidation of its national defense capabilities. Obviously, the concerns of the EU are not simply economic; the question is, where will this union take Spain and Europe?

A few facts are already available. The European Union currently guarantees worker mobility for the citizens of the member nations. But nobody knows how this guarantee of worker mobility might extend to a more general guarantee of health-care mobility. And if healthcare mobility should be ordained a natural right by Brussels, will the bureaucrats mandate coverage in accordance with newly created laws, with the laws of the person’s home nation, or the laws of the worker’s temporary soil? Will health-care plans originating in the Netherlands confer on Spanish employees the privilege to skirt Spain’s national laws and flee to the Netherlands, where standards are set lower? Current evidence suggests that the European Union will only accelerate the universal tendency of European legal standards: Accordingly, what is prohibited in Germany will also be prohibited in Spain, and what is permitted in Italy will also be permitted in London. Indeed, the current controversy over the potential Spanish extradition of General Pinochet from London is a stark example of the blurring of national distinctions in law and culture looming in Europe.

This recent abortion debate in Spain was not then a discrete event that came and now is gone. Abortion as an issue is an ongoing affair that, whether in Spain or in England, points toward future European public opinion. What, then, is the current public opinion in Spain on the question of abortion?

Most polls in Spain reveal a mind almost as tortured and confused as that of America. The conscience of Spain is divided, and few Spaniards embrace unrestricted abortion. Indeed, the recent abortion law failed to pass because of several last-minute abstentions and reversals by several deputies who were morally troubled by the bill. At the same time, the majority of Spaniards support some sort of abortion protection.

In his public comments, Monsenor Yanes of the Episcopal Conference alluded, almost in passing, to a central issue in the struggle against abortion. Yanes, who proclaimed the truth about the sacred dignity of the human person, also spoke of women who are sometimes weakened by “societal pressures” and make flawed decisions. But what sort of society, what sort of culture, pressures women into choosing abortion when they might choose life?

The pressures felt by women in Spain, in other parts of Europe, and in America speak volumes about a moral struggle that continues to divide the conscience of the world. On one side, there are those who see abortion as a right to be guarded and promoted until it shall embrace the world. To these people, the right to life is relative, secondary to the right of personal self-determination. On the other side are those who embrace Pope John Paul II’s culture of life. To these people, abortion negates the essence of the good. Abortion denies that man was made in the image of God and thus receives a right to life higher than the power of government to take it away. In this world divided, many others have yet to pick sides; men and women maintain a foot in both camps.

New World Values

The culture of life faces an uphill battle in contemporary Spain for reasons that extend beyond the question of abortion. The elite of Madrid and Barcelona are captivated by an image of a new and influential Spain. The Spain of today is hailed by Time magazine as a cultural and even economic power in the world. Spain was an early qualifier for European monetary union, and its companies hold strong positions in the emerging markets of Latin America.

However, during the past two decades, while Spain has opened itself to the world economically, it has also shut down one of the basic sources of strength for the Spanish society: the intact family unit. In just one generation, abortion, contraception, and rising divorce rates have taken a wrecking ball to the average Spanish family. In 1970, the typical Spanish husband and wife had three to four children. At the same time, the birth rates in almost all the other European nations exceeded two children per family. Today, the average number of children per Spanish family has fallen to 1.2. In the European Union today, there is not a single country with a birth rate at replacement level. In Italy, France, and Ireland, all predominantly Catholic countries, the story reads the same with birth rates of 1.2, 1.7, and 1.9 children per family, respectively. Within a single generation, the Spanish people have transformed the nature of Spanish society.

The Spain of today is aging fast, and, barring a radical change in their ways, the future holds little promise for the Spanish youth of today. Within a generation, the population of Spain will begin to shrink at an accelerating pace. The increasing number of older people will create unreasonable demands on the working Spaniard of tomorrow. The stage is being set for a nasty conflict between the old and the young of Spain, a fight that will threaten the social fabric stitched into a land over a thousand years.

If Spain’s recent abortion debate left little changed in the way of new laws, it has shown once again where the lines of difference are clearly drawn. The road ahead either forks above to a world that celebrates the culture of life, rooted in faith, family, and the sanctity of human life, or forks below to the glorification of the self, waning respect for the family, and a cavalier disregard for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.

The controversy in Spain points out another aspect of how debates over moral and social issues will play out on the world stage. Judging from the last ten years, there can be little doubt that social issues have transcended national boundaries. Women’s rights and population control are addressed regularly in global conferences held by the United Nations. At home in the U.S. Congress, representatives debate the merits of tying new money for the International Monetary Fund to political and moral demands. Health-care, education, and Social Security reform movements increasingly borrow ideas put forward by reformers in countries as far away as Great Britain and Chile. Global newspapers such as the Financial Times, global information gathered from the Internet, and cheap international telecommunication are allowing peoples to watch their neighbors more closely than before. At the same time cheap air travel and a passportless Europe have made laws regarding cultural issues such as abortion, drug use, and euthanasia increasingly difficult to enforce upon a nation’s citizens.

With the explosion in global communications, it is perhaps ironic that this explosion has increased, not decreased, the moral and cultural importance of America. America remains uniquely positioned as a global power. The people of the Spanish nation, the people of Europe, look to America for moral and cultural leadership more than ever before. They eat our hamburgers, they drink Coca-Cola, and they all know Michael Jordan. Just a century and a half ago, the United States stood in relation to the British Empire the way Spain and Europe stand beside America. In 1834, the British Empire outlawed slavery in the British colonies from that day forward. This act signaled a new birth of freedom in the British empire, an act of goodness that inspired an American abolitionist by the name of William Lloyd Garrison, who had only three years earlier started his newspaper, The Liberator. So today, when we look out upon the changes occurring in Spain and in Europe, may we have no illusions that the world is watching every step America takes, every law our leaders pass. The example America sets will in no small way determine whether the culture of life has a chance in Spain and in the world.


  • Thomas Lehrman

    At the time this article was published, Thomas Lehrman, a freelance writer living in New York City, had spent two years living in Spain.

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