In announcing a new abortion law and hinting that its citizens could be given the right to assisted suicide, the socialist government is set for a head-on collision with the Catholic Church
BY 2012, when Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero finishes his second stint as President of the Government, Spain will be a vastly different country to that which voted in the socialist PSOE party in 2004.
The national football team and World number one tennis star Rafael Nadal et al have ensured the days of serial sporting failures are over. The housing boom that has seen Spain’s economy grow from a weakling child to one of Europe’s financial big hitters will also be a distant memory.
And with the recent announcement of radical second-term social reforms that will liberalize abortion laws and allow for assisted suicide, the once-strong bond between the Spanish State and the Catholic Church will also be consigned to the dustbin of history.
These ties between Madrid and the Vatican were weakened during the PSOE’s first four years in office following the General Election victory on March 14 four years ago.
The Church coughed and spluttered as same sex marriages were legalised and divorce rules relaxed; marriage annulment rates have soared by 75 per cent following the introduction of the ‘quickie’ divorce law in 2005.
Then, the government decided to review the teaching of religious education in schools. Parents were given the choice to opt their children out of compulsory classes that taught all aspects of the Catholic faith (by far the majority religion in Spain with 95 per cent of the population belonging to this Church).
In the stead of RE, schools could offer Educacion para la Ciudadania: ‘awareness’ classes that teach children all aspects of modern society – including homosexuality, divorce and the understanding of different faiths.
This was derided by the right-wing Partido Popular – the opposition political group which maintains close links to the Church – as “the catechism of a good socialist.”
Indeed, certain PP-run regions – like Valencia and Madrid – are refusing to allow these ‘respect classes’ to be taught in Spanish, preferring the classes to be given solely in English.
This will result in a Catch-22 situation for many secondary school students – especially those with a poor grasp of that foreign language. They will be left with little or no understanding of the message imparted by Educacion para la Ciudadania.
Even in Andalucía – a socialist stronghold since the region was granted autonomy in 1981 – a court is hearing the objections of several parents’ groups that want to maintain the compulsory nature of RE.
More importantly, however, the cobwebs have been blown away from a key point in Spain’s recent history.
In fierce opposition to Church leaders and the right-wing Partido Popular, the Law of Historical Memory came into force in December 2007.
This gives recognition to those who not only fell victim to the military rebellion that led to Civil War in 1936, but also those who suffered during General Francisco Franco’s 36-year dictatorship.
Within the past fortnight, Baltasar Garzon – one of the country’s leading judges (and, incidentally, a PSOE supporter) – has ordered an investigation into the whereabouts of all those who disappeared during and after the three-year bloody internal conflict.
With thousands of remains buried in unmarked, mass graves throughout the country, the Church has strongly opposed this move claiming it will flatly refuse investigators any access to parish records.
But it is the proposed abortion legislation and Law for a Dignified Death that will be the cause of great upset within the Church.
Currently, pregnancy terminations are only allowed in cases of rape (up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) and when exists fetal deformation or a serious risk to the wellbeing of the mother (up to 22 weeks).
Only a few clinics nationwide, the majority of which are private, conduct this sensitive procedure but in some autonomous communities terminations are banned outright: Navarra, for example.
This leaves the woman with little choice but to make the heartbreaking journey to a different part of Spain for the abortion.
But within 12 months the government hopes to overhaul this 23-year-old law, bringing the country in line with France, where women can exercise free will and have a termination for whatever reason until the 14th week of gestation (although the National Gynaecology Society of Spain wants the new law to have a cut off point of 24 weeks).
“We will incorporate the best international abortion legislation and guarantee the fundamental rights of the women who freely decide to end the pregnancy,” said Bibiana Aído, the minister for equality, whose department will also seek uniform – and legal – treatment in all parts of Spain.
This has drawn only reserved criticism so far from both Rome and Toledo – the seat of the country’s Catholic Church.
Both issued short statements expressing their “sadness” at the move, but are waiting until the full details of the legislation are announced (expected within six months) to comment further.
But after the entire Spanish parliament was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church when the initial abortion law was passed in 1985, can we expect a similar response from religious leaders in 2009?
“Culture of death”
The Church has not been so quiet when it comes to Madrid’s most radical social reform.
Earlier this month, the government called for a one-year period of reflection to debate changes to the penal code that could see the legalisation of assisted suicide.
If it does go ahead, those who have campaigned for the right to a dignified death could see their wish granted before the next General Election in 2012.
In announcing plans for the Law for a Dignified Death, Health Minister Bernat Soria said in an interview with newspaper El Pais: “Everybody has the right to say that they do not want to be subjected to torture… We know that people are dying in great pain and this should not be the case. We know that we are never going to win the battle against death, but we can win the battle against pain.”
Soria then added: “Our society has shown on various occasions that it is a modern society, mature and is prepared for debate of this type.”
However, religious officials do not see it like this, claiming the government has submersed itself into “the culture of death.”
The PP also weighed into the debate. In siding with the Church, party officials slammed the proposal that would allow for “the liquidation of people with public funds.”
Maybe Soria had the case of Ramon Sampedro in mind when he announced the period of reflection. He was a fisherman from Galicia whose plight was recorded in the Oscar-winning film Mar Adentro.
At the age of 25 he became a prisoner in his own bed and, for 30 years following the diving accident that left him tetraplegic, Sampedro fought unsuccessfully for his legal right to die.
He eventually achieved his wish in 1998. Helped by close friend Ramona Maneiro, Sampedro had a drink containing potassium cyanide, which killed him.
Maneiro was arrested with assisting his suicide, but the charges were later dropped.
Olive Press readers may remember a case closer to home, however. In March last year Inmaculada Echevarría won her legal battle for the right to refuse medical treatment.
She had lain in a hospital bed in Granada for nine years, with only an artificial respirator keeping her alive.
Suffering from the wasting disease muscular dystrophy since 1978, Inmaculada had requested her breathing apparatus be turned off.
This was eventually granted following protracted dialogue between medical and legal authorities.
But what could well become the eternal wedge between Madrid and the Church is something much more base than human life: money and power.
Spain’s Constitution – agreed in 1978 to herald the return of democracy following XX years of dictatorship – states that all religions are to be considered equal.
In practice, however, this is not the case. Every month, the Catholic Church receives 12 million euros from the tax payer; other faiths, such as Islam and Protestantism, get nothing.
In its second term, the socialist government has promised sweeping reforms of the Law of Religious Freedom.
To guarantee (in the words of deputy leader María Teresa Fernández de la Vega) “pluralism and the freedom of conscience that represents the Spain of today,” the changes to the initial 1980 legislation will guarantee equality to all religions practised nationwide.
This effectively means that Judaism, Islam, Evangelicism (the faith of the majority of Spain’s Roma and African population) and many others will share the same stage as Catholicism in the teaching of RE in schools.
There will also be important revisions to the State subsidies given to the Church.
Sensing it could lose its stranglehold upon society, the Church is asking if these reforms are truly necessary.
But if this new legislation wipes out any discrimination that could currently exist towards other faiths, Spain’s transition to democracy will be complete. The government will have achieved its goals in creating that “modern society” ministers want to create.
So, the answer to that query has to be yes.