Anti-abortion activists protest in Madrid in November 2014.
Anti-abortion activists protest in Madrid in November 2014.

MADRID (WOMENSENEWS)–Anti-abortion activists in Spain are furious that the ruling Popular Party didn’t deliver on its 2011 campaign promise, and they aren’t giving up.

Still smarting from the failure by the government of Mariano Rajoy to pass a major abortion restriction, they took to the streets on Nov. 22 to protest “the lie of Minister Rajoy,” said Gador Joya, a spokesperson for the Spanish “Right to Live” in an interview during the march.

The bill, which restricted abortion to pregnancies that posed severe risks to the mother or severe malformation of the fetus, was shelved in September after provoking a national and international outcry.

Tens of thousands of Spaniards (60,000 according to the police and 500,000 according to the organizers) participated in the protest, with many arriving in buses from around the country. Leaders of the movement say they represent millions of Spaniards.

During the demonstration one female passerby said that now that the political sparks have started to fly over abortion in Spain the controversy won’t stop any time soon. “The debate will continue because there are two very opposite positions.”

The rise of anti-abortion activism in Spain is mirrored in many neighboring countries.

One sign of this is on the Internet.

For instance, a woman in France searching the term “abortion” on Google France will find the websites and appearing at the top of the list. They look like official health websites with a hotline and phrases such as “National Documentation Center,” but when you go to the sites they promote “respect for life” and offer testimonies of women who regret their decisions to have abortions.

“Across the European continent, especially in Eastern Europe, there has been an increase in political initiatives aiming to restrict or attempting to restrict abortion,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, in a phone interview from Brussels.

More Funding and Clout

Compared to 10 years ago, “pro-life” advocates, as they prefer to be called, have more funding, are more organized, are subtler in their messaging and are rising in the ranks of organized politics with the polarizing effect on parties that has been evident in the United States for decades.

From the center to the left, most of the mainstream political parties in Europe, from liberal to social democrats to green, strongly support abortion rights while those who are anti-abortion are to the right.

“Some of the anti-abortion politicians have been able to wiggle their way into positions of influence within their political parties,” said Datta, “so that they can have an anti-choice position which they hope to apply to the whole political party; without that the party has to take an anti-choice position.”

In his bid to regain the presidency, for instance, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently tapped Madeleine Bazin de Jessey, a spokesperson of the association Sens Commun, or “Common Wisdom,” as national secretary of his party, the UMP. De Jessey’s group advocates against abortion and other issues such as same-sex marriage.

Sens Commun belongs to the socially conservative collective La Manif pour Tous, which has strongly opposed same-sex marriage. La Manif pour Tous didn’t give its official position on abortion when contacted by Women’s eNews.

While no longer relying so heavily on religious arguments, which can work against the movement’s goals, today’s anti-abortion activists in Europe are still “religiously oriented” and “Christians in inspiration,” said Datta. This subtler profile gives the movement a more popular reach.

Splinter-Issue Focus

With Spain’s failure to pass a major abortion restriction serving as a cautionary example, European activists are following the U.S. lead in chipping away and focusing on splinter issues such as sex-selective abortion and abortion in the cases of fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome.

In Spain, “it was too big of a change, it was packaged in one law and it provided people with focus and they were able to fight it,” said Datta.

But elsewhere in the region, Datta pointed to examples of an incremental approach.

In Romania, for instance, a bill pending since 2012 requires a woman seeking an abortion to participate in “pregnancy crisis counseling” at designated centers, where she would be forced to tell counselors why she is seeking an abortion, view images or video clips of an abortion procedure, hear detailed information about fetal development and view images of her ultrasound. After visiting the center, she would be required to take a five-day “reflection period.”

In 2013, Macedonia passed a law that requires women to file requests for abortion to the Health Ministry affirming they have completed counseling, informed their partners or spouses of their intention to abort and met a gynecologist. The law also forbids women from having a second abortion within a year of the first one.

U.S. anti-abortion groups appear to be sharing their expertise with their European counterparts. Datta cites the example of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, based in Knoxville, Tenn., which ran a poster campaign that links photos of genocide and holocaust next to images of aborted fetuses. Countries, such as Slovakia and Poland, used a similar ad campaign to promote their agenda at the European Parliament and in public squares, said Datta.

Datta said it’s hard to prove the financial links between U.S. anti-abortion groups and their European counterparts but signs of growing prosperity are obvious. In Brussels, he said, for example, about a dozen anti-abortion groups have offices and professional staffs. “Twenty years ago,” he said, “there were maybe two or three organizations in Brussels.”

This story was reported and produced by Juhie Bhatia, Women’s eNews’ managing editor, and Hajer Naili, Women’s eNews’ staff reporter for the series “Backlash in Europe: Women’s Reproductive Rights Threatened.” This special project was funded by a group of private donors and contributors to the Women’s eNews Catapult online campaign. Join the conversation on reproductive health issues in Spain and France on Twitter #EUReproRights.