New Internationalist

Shut up, stay put – and have nice babies

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Spain’s new abortion law is just one more example of the government’s patriarchal, patronizing and hypocritical attitude, says Marian Womack.

Once upon a time, the Spanish government passed a law designed to help the severely disabled, the very old, and the chronically ill. The Ley de Dependencia gave the less fortunate some extra income to cover the costs of carers, nurses, extra medicines and medical services. My grandmother applied for help under this law, and was successful. Then – a very Spanish practice – she sat down to wait. She waited and waited. Her claim had been approved; the constant bureaucratic delays meant she died before receiving any money. And this was before the current government, which has now, of course, cut deeply into the provisions of this law.

Once upon a time, a friend decided to try her luck looking for work in a faraway land. But two days before Christmas this year the government decided to penalize her entrepreneurial spirit. Now, if a Spanish citizen goes abroad for more than three months, they shall be punished. How? By losing their right to medical treatment when they are back in their own country. This is the case even if you travel to an EU country. Who cares about freedom of movement for European citizens? Who cares if they are trying to find the employment their own government is incapable of creating?

Those two cautionary tales uncover a couple of truths about Spain: when a support system is in place, the bureaucratic labyrinth makes it possible not to benefit from it; and when there is a system in place that might work, a neoliberal government will come and tear it apart.

This all should be kept in mind if, as in my case, you are living in Spain and planning to have a baby. It is not a good time to get pregnant. To the débâcle that the Spanish National Health Service has become, one has to add one sorry aspect that is at the heart of the controversial abortion bill presented before Parliament: the interference of the Catholic lobby. The bill can be simply summarized: women lose the right to decide, they must put themselves in the hand of others, usually men; and if there is any serious problem with the unborn child, such as life-affecting foetal malformations, the pregnancy must still run to term. This under a government that is not prepared to help with the expenses caused by a lifetime of medical problems. The bill is basically an invitation for the poor to return to the economy of the backstreet clinic; no-one believes that the wealthy will not terminate their pregnancies, if they choose to do so, by travelling abroad and throwing cash at the problem.

The law is contradictory, with exceptions that don’t make sense. A rape that results in pregnancy is the only case where termination is permitted; this makes the claims of the right to life of the unborn morally suspicious. Severe disability and foetal abnormality is not a legitimate cause; however, if the child is born disabled, there is now no Ley de Dependencia to help his parents. This is Spain at its finest, upholding yet another Spanish tradition: that of making policy, and the bureaucracy that enforces it, so illogical that it appears to be promoting contradictory outcomes. Every Spaniard has met Kafka at least once.

Apart from when the pregnant woman has been raped, the only other time when abortion is not illegal is if there exists a ‘certifiable’ risk to the mother’s health, attested by three different doctors, from different clinics. This enforces patriarchal control: only once have I been seen by a female doctor. Things are changing, but the new young female doctors of my generation are not working yet, no-one is hiring them, and the gender gap will take years to be properly addressed. As far as my sexual health is concerned, I will have to be subject to the opinions of three men. Men I will need to find for myself, to get to agree to see me, and, presumably, pay. The current system does not allow for second opinions: you have one doctor, and no reason to see another. I wonder how, or if, they are planning to explain to the secretaries in clinics that we now can see doctors other than our GPs. This will be frowned upon; obstacles will be put in the way simply because it is more work, or because the paperwork does not exist.

There is a sense that citizens are under observation, their life choices constantly being judged. The abortion bill promotes this regression to being told what we can and cannot do. Meanwhile, those with the power to tell us how we must live also decide the level of support lesser beings such as ourselves do or do not deserve. Our rulers are patriarchal, patronizing and hypocritical, and they have a new maxim: stay healthy, stay in Spain, and conceive nice babies. That is all you need to do. At least no-one can claim that we are not told clearly what is expected of us.

Marian Womack tweets at @beekeepermadrid

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