Spain's controversial abortion law has been passed by the lower house of parliament and is now making its way through the Senate. Beyond parliament, however, a bitter conflict on the "ley del aborto" has torn open old wounds between the Catholic church and the ruling socialist party. Under the law's provisions, abortions would be available on demand for women of 16 and over up to the 14th week of pregnancy - and up to 22 weeks if there was a risk to the mother's health or if the foetus was deformed. Women could also undergo the procedure after 22 weeks if the foetus had a serious or incurable illness. However what has most angered the Catholic community - and even some supporters of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) government - is a provision allowing girls of 16 to have an abortion without their parents' consent or knowledge. Opinion polls have shown that 56 per cent of socialists who support the liberal PSOE government are very unhappy at this clause, against 64 per cent opposition across Spain as a whole. The protests against the new abortion law have been led by Hazte Oir, a coalition of Catholic organisations. In October over a million people gathered in the Plaza de Independencia in Madrid to voice their opposition.
This highly motivated Catholic movement has been joined by the centre-right Partido Popular, which has pledged to ask the Constitutional Court to overturn the abortion legislation. PSOE policies have set Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on a collision course with the Catholic church in Spain on numerous fronts, including divorce, gay rights and education. And the battle over the proposed abortion laws has become increasingly bitter since the church banned a leading PSOE member from taking communion. Staunch Catholic Jose Bono is president of the Spanish Congress and voted for the legislation. He argued in an interview that he supported the law because he understood it would reduce abortions and that, according to former pope John Paul II's guidance on the issue, "politicians can vote for laws governing abortion if they believe that they are reducing the evil it causes." But in a letter to daily newspaper El Mundo the Spanish Episcopal Conference stated that politicians were obliged to vote against any law which did not adequately protect the inviolable right to life of those who are yet to be born. This ongoing struggle has highlighted the suspicion with which many Spaniards view the Catholic church.
It was closely associated with the dictatorship of Franco, leading to deep distrust among generations of Spanish leftwingers. Students of the Spanish civil war well remember the role played by the Catholic caucus in the US to prevent president Franklin D Roosevelt from supporting the democratically elected government in Madrid. Catholic activists and writers also rubbished the press reports by Jay Allen on the nationalists' slaughter in Badajoz and George Steer's accounts of the destruction of Guernica, arguing they were communist inventions. Following the church's decision to bar Bono from receiving communion PSOE vice-secretary general Jose Blanco waded into the argument. Blanco accused the church of "hypocrisy," pointing out that it had taken no action against members of the former Partido Popular government of Jose Maria Aznar which introduced the present abortion law - "members of the government of the right under whom in our country there have been over 500,000 abortions."
And so the fight over the right to life of the unborn child has fired up old animosities, with socialists believing that the church favours its allies on the right above those on the left - even devout Catholics such as Bono. High-profile socialist Luis Solana, who was instrumental in establishing democracy after Franco, noted that socialists who are also practising Catholics have experienced "many bitter times." As far as the church is concerned the classic socialist is an agnostic, he said, hence those who follow both the Catholic and socialist creeds such as Bono are rejected by the hierarchy and should expect no charity. Back in October a local communist leader of the United Left (IU) Pedro Moreno Brenes explained his own relationship with Catholicism. Brenes, a lecturer in law at Malaga University and a Catholic, practises his faith openly alongside the political beliefs that he has held since adolescence. He said that his religion coexists with his political leanings and said that he felt no conflict whether he was invited to a religious or civil event, and was pleased to accept all invitations should they be from Muslim or Jewish communities or atheists. Asked about the antagonism between the IU and organised Catholicism, Brenes touched on another reason for the church's hostility towards the left. "The party, for example, proposes that there shouldn't be any tax privileges for religious entities. It is compatible in the respect of - and the separation of - public and religious life."
Brenes remained in no doubt that the Christian message of "love one another" is much the same as the communist belief in fraternity and equality. But while it may be compatible to be a Christian as well as a socialist or communist in Spain - where Catholicism is the only real Christian option - it seems that the Catholic church hierarchy views things very differently.
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