Many Spanish doctors declare themselves conscientious objectors, which makes access difficult for women seeking the procedure.
ZARAGOZA, Spain – Mercedes Sobreviela, a gynecologist in this city in northeastern Spain, believes that the decision to have an abortion concerns women. He says that the “right decision” for a woman is “whenever she wants.” But as a doctor in Spain, Sobreviela believes that she too has the right to choose, and has chosen not to perform abortions. Their public hospital, the Hospital Clínico Universitario de Zaragoza, does not carry them out either. In fact, no public hospital in the Aragon region, where 1.3 million people live, carries out the intervention. “It is that we are doctors, doctors by vocation are to favor, to help live, we are not to decide who is going to live or not,” said Sobreviela. Spain liberalized its abortion legislation in 2010. Previously, women were only allowed to abort in extraordinary circumstances, but new laws allow all women to undergo the procedure in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, without restrictions.
But the map of the places where abortions can be determined is less determined by national legislation than Spanish doctors. In large numbers and throughout the country, doctors refuse to perform them. The situation in Spain offers a glimpse of what to expect for other countries at a time when vastly different measures in Texas and Mexico have reignited the debate over access to abortion. Conservative Texas lawmakers have practically banned abortion in the state, while, across the border, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled this month to decriminalize abortion in that country. The uncertainty in Mexico is whether doctors will provide the service, a question that many doctors in Spain have already answered. They call themselves “conscientious objectors”, a term coined by pacifists who refused to do military service. And like those who claimed a moral duty not to go to war, many doctors in Spain say that performing abortions would violate their oath to do no harm – a commitment, they say, that extends to the fetus. “One thing is that abortion seems good or bad to you, each person will have their own criteria,” says María Jesús Barco, another gynecologist from Zaragoza who is an objector. “Another thing is that I have to do it. That is different”.
Conscientious objection has gained ground in other countries, such as Italy, where it was invoked by doctors who work in hospitals that mostly do not perform abortions. And in Argentina, it has limited attempts to liberalize an abortion law passed last year in that country. In five of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities – the equivalent of the states – no public hospital offers abortions, according to the most recent government statistics. Women can continue to have an abortion in a private subsidized clinic, but in many cases they have to cross regional borders to get it. That was what Erika Espinosa, 34, had to do in 2015 when her gynecologist in the city of Logroño did not want to perform an abortion after she requested it. “Doctors try to convince you that you don’t want your child because you want to have an abortion,” says Espinosa, who went to neighboring Navarra to interrupt her pregnancy. “I had the feeling of doing something clandestine.”
There are no official statistics on how many objector doctors work in Spain. But the country’s left-wing coalition government is concerned enough that Irene Montero, the equality minister, in July proposed changing the current abortion law to put limits on the ability of doctors to become objectors. “Conscientious objection cannot be incompatible with the rights of women nor should it be an obstacle for them to exercise their right to voluntary interruption of pregnancy,” the minister said in a written statement. These statements have been met with strong criticism from sectors of the Spanish medical community. Eva María Martín, a pharmacist who heads the National Association for the Defense of the Right to Conscientious Objection, a group that defends medical objectors, called the proposals unfair and accused the government of “radical feminism.”
“It is in an ideology of gender to the beast, that the freedom of women is the most, that men are left fatal,” he said. Martín said that it is the duty of doctors to oppose any law that pushes them to take measures that they consider unfair. “When there is a serious conflict between your conscience and a law, you cannot morally, you inside, reject it,” she said, adding that she had nine children as proof of her opinion against abortion.