Spain is heading for its third general election in less than four years on April 28. And with days to go before the vote, the leaders of the four main political parties – the ruling Socialists, the conservative People’s Party (PP), the centre-right Ciudadanos and the left-wing Unidas-Podemos – went head-to-head in a televised debate. The all-male panel sparred on immigration, the economy and Catalan independence in an effort to sway the electorate. The only women to take to the stage were the two photographed mopping the podium prior to broadcast.
The right-wing vote currently appears split between the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox, an anti-immigration, anti-feminist party that has only recently broken into the mainstream. The alarming rise of Vox has been aided by waning support for the conservative People’s Party (PP) following corruption scandals that saw it ousted from office last summer.
While the Spanish right may be more fragmented now than at any point since Franco’s death in 1975, the PP and Vox are united on one key issue: opposition to abortion. With recent polls suggesting up to 40% of voters remain undecided and a coalition government likely, the election results will prove critical to the future of women’s rights in Spain. Echoing the patriarchal, anti-feminist policies of the Franco dictatorship, both parties pose a very real threat to a 2010 law that allows for elective termination until 14 weeks into a pregnancy.
This comes at a time when women’s rights in Spain are under international scrutiny following the controversial “La Manada” (“wolf pack”) case. A gang of five men prosecuted for sexually assaulting a woman in Pamploma in 2016 were acquitted of rape because the court ruled their crime didn’t involve “violence”. Instead, they were found guilty on the lesser charge of sexual abuse. The trial galvanised Spanish feminists, who took to the streets to protest against the machismo culture that endures. In response, there has been a spike in misogynistic rhetoric from the Spanish right and a backlash against “radical feminism” – a label applied liberally to policies on gender equality.
When protests organised by the anti-choice “Yes to Life” movement attracted millions to the Spanish capital on March 24, prominent figures from both Vox and the PP attended. At the International Women’s Day march held in Madrid a fortnight earlier, both parties were conspicuous by their absence. Members of Spain’s other electoral challengers were in attendance, publicly backing feminist causes.
Vox’s aggressively anti-feminist manifesto includes a commitment to end public funding for abortions. It also wants to repeal the 2004 gender violence law on the grounds that it is discriminatory, and shut down what it describes as “radical feminist organisations”.
A staunchly anti-choice platform informs Vox’s core ethos. Indeed, one of the four fundamental political objectives that led to the party’s formation in 2013 was opposition to abortion in all circumstances, along with a commitment to “protect the family”. Tweets from Francisco Serrano, the party’s leader in Valencia, condemn “psychopathic feminazis”, and he has declared himself proud to be labelled “machista” if it means “defending life”. In a disparaging reference to the La Manada case, Serrano Tweeted that some women are not attractive enough to be gang-raped.
Meanwhile, Pablo Casado, leader of the PP, is endorsed by the ultra-conservative anti-feminist HazteOír (“Make Yourself Heard”) campaign group because of his anti-choice stance. Casado, who is among the more probable candidates to become Spain’s next prime minister, has frequently advocated reverting to the much more restrictive 1985 abortion law that only allowed terminations in very limited cases. He drew furious reactions in February when he argued women should be informed that the embryo is an “autonomous life”.
Recent comments made by Adolfo Suárez Illana – a prominent figure in the PP – were so extreme they attracted criticism from within his own party. He falsely claimed New York had approved post-birth terminations and compared abortion rates with deaths from traffic accidents and suicide. He stated that abortion results in a “dead child”.
We need only consider Donald Trump’s recent efforts to restrict abortion access in the US to see how the rise of populism translates into patriarchal policies. The rejection of the abortion bill proposed in the Argentine senate last summer reminds us that the progress made in Ireland is not necessarily indicative of a consistent international trend.
In Spain, reproductive freedoms have always formed a crucial component of the social and political tensions that continue to divide a country torn apart by a bloody civil war. Abortion legislation introduced in 1936 under the progressive Second Republic was swiftly overturned when Franco’s Nationalists declared victory in 1939. Abortion was criminalised and motherhood actively promoted by the regime and Catholic Church.
Women were bombarded with propaganda that presented bearing children as a form of national service. This philosophy was echoed in alarming comments made by Casado in February. The PP leader linked voluntary abortion with the sustainability of the country’s pension and healthcare systems, arguing, with no trace of irony: “In order to finance pensions and healthcare, we need to think about having more children not having abortions.”
The current law was introduced by a Socialist government in 2010 but the PP vowed to return to the more restrictive legislation when it came back into power in 2011. It was, however, forced to shelve these plans in 2014 after major protests.
Abortion remains a divisive, polemical issue in Spain and the increasingly conservative character of the Spanish right makes future aggressive challenges to the law likely. With Vox forecast to make parliamentary gains, the party could prove critical in propping up a right-wing coalition government. The PP’s lurch to the right in an effort to attract Vox supporters is equally foreboding. Although immigration, Catalan nationalism and the economy dominate the headlines, it is crucial we remember that women’s bodies remain a key battleground in Spanish politics.