On the sidewalk outside the Dator Clinic in Madrid, a message is scrawled in black spray paint like a morbid welcome mat: “Aquí matan niños.” “They kill children here.” This message has been here for over two years. As the first private abortion clinic in Madrid, Dator has long attracted protests and vitriol, but these have increased in recent years.
This trend is not limited to Madrid; according to a study conducted in 2018, 89% of women who visited abortion clinics in Spain reported experiencing harassment.
Patients aren’t the only ones being harassed. Giulia Severi, a Barcelona-based researcher for the European Abortion Access Project, regularly visits abortion clinics to collect data.
“Yes, I was harassed; yes, I was stopped,” Severi said. “The very first day I got to the clinic, there were people there and they took a picture of me, point blank. I was like what? What is happening?”
She describes loud and vocal prayer, leaflets being distributed, “posters with very graphic images, and they stop people.”
Some groups adopt even more aggressive tactics; an organization called Rescate parks a medical van outside clinics, where they lure patients in, show them ultrasounds, lecture them about the “murder” they are about to commit, and offer them food and drink in hopes that their distress will keep them from remembering that they were instructed by their doctor not to ingest anything prior to the procedure. If they are successful, the procedure will have to be rescheduled.
Disruptive practices like these have become so prominent as to inspire an anti-harassment bill specific to abortion clinics. The bill was passed by the Spanish Senate in April, and penalizes anyone attempting to impede an abortion with three to twelve months of jail time.
One of the most vocal groups of protestors is called “40 Días por la Vida.” 40 Días is not a local phenomenon; it is a branch of the Texas-based organization 40 Days for Life. In the United States, 40 Days is known for its aggressively religious approach. The organization began in 2004 with a 40-day, 24-hour prayer campaign outside a Bryan, Texas, Planned Parenthood. In subsequent years, these vigils spread to other U.S. states; by 2009, they had spread to cities in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. Today, there are 40 Days campaigns present in 61 countries across North and South America, Europe, and Africa.
Robert Colquhoun, director of International Campaigns for 40 Days for Life, emphasizes the importance of international expansion to the organization. “The pro-life movement in the United States is well developed … Many other countries are further behind in their activism, and therefore it is really important for other countries to learn from the USA's practices.”
Foremost among these practices, he explains, is prayer. “Prayer is the essence of our campaign—and prayer works everywhere. Public witness is also universally effective as a tool of evangelism and to share values and principles with other people, particularly people that disagree with you. We have seen babies saved from abortion from all over the world in different countries.”
The Spanish branch of 40 Days—40 Días por la Vida—began with five friends in a park, says Nayeli Jimenez. Jimenez is the National Leader for 40 Días, but maintains a full-time job as the work is unpaid. Since she began working with 40 Días in 2019, Jimenez says, there has been a 30% increase in vigil participation each year; the number of campaigns has doubled, and the number of cities they reach has more than tripled.
“I received the message that they were looking for a leader in Madrid, they gave me a phone number, and I wrote them,” Jimenez said. “We started asking [for] help from other pro-life organizations in Madrid; most of them thought it was a great idea, [but] here the pro-life movement is essentially non-religious so they couldn’t support us a lot.”
Colquhoun notes this non-religious component as one of the key differences between the U.S. and other countries. “Europe is more secular than the United States … [and] likely more hostile for the pro-life movement.” Jimenez adds that the American practice of “sidewalk counseling” women is frowned upon in Spain, and the Spanish volunteers do not directly approach women.
Claire McKinney, a professor of government and gender studies at the College of William & Mary, agrees. She cites the unique history and culture of the United States that allowed the anti-abortion movement to flourish.
“In the United States what has really worked is being tied specifically to religion and anti-feminism … and these might be reasons why the resonance globally has not been [as strong]. You can’t just carbon copy what has happened in the United States to other places.”
Regions such as Western Europe and Latin America that do not share America’s strong evangelical traditions have proven less fertile ground for anti-abortion groups. While the United States is experiencing an onslaught of anti-abortion legislation, several Western European countries like the U.K. and France have implemented legislation protecting clinics from groups such as 40 Days. A popular strategy is to implement “buffer zones” around abortion clinics where no protest is allowed in order to ensure patient and staff safety and limit emotional distress.
The saliency of the anti-harassment issue in Spain may seem curious given the fact that the Iberian nation is often a destination for people seeking abortions from countries with more restrictive laws, such as Germany, France, and Italy. Silvia de Zordo, the lead researcher on the European Abortion Access Project, has been tracking inter- and intra-national abortion travel for years.
“Most of our participants who travel across borders found out they were pregnant and decided to get an abortion beyond the gestational age limit,” she explains, “which for most European countries is 12 weeks.”
Spain’s gestational age limit is currently 14 weeks, and can be extended to 22 if there are serious health risks to the parent or fetus. In many other countries, these health issues must be present in order to be approved for an abortion at all.
But, as de Zordo notes, Spain is not without its own problematic limitations around abortion. Under Spanish law, health practitioners may refuse to perform abortions on the grounds of conscientious objection. This is a loophole that has resulted in five of the country’s autonomous regions–including Madrid—having no public hospitals that will perform abortions.
According to a 2020 study by the State Registry of Voluntary Interruptions of Pregnancy (IVE), nearly 85% of abortions in Spain are carried out in private clinics rather than in public health centers. In eight Spanish provinces, where there are no nearby private clinics, no abortions have been performed in three decades. People seeking abortions must travel to other regions for the procedure.
This issue has led to proposed reforms that would create a registry of conscientious objectors—following Italy’s example—and guarantee the right to abortions at public hospitals so travel would not be necessary for so many. Spain’s Minister of Equality Irene Montero, who proposed the reforms in December 2021, took to Twitter to advocate for them.
“Conscientious objection cannot be an obstacle for women to exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy,” Montero says. “We must reform the law to regulate it and make sure abortion is guaranteed in the public health system.”
The new laws would also repeal a 2015 bill passed by former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government that requires those under 18 to obtain parental consent before having an abortion.
Spain has vacillated between progressive and restrictive abortion laws in the years since the procedure was decriminalized for cases of rape or health risks in 1985. The socialist government liberalized the laws in 2010, the conservative government tightened them in 2015, and now the current leftist government seeks to loosen them yet again. McKinney sees this instability as an indication of both “an ease of legislative change but also the lack of a consolidation of the position.” De Zordo resists simplifying the controversy surrounding abortion in Spain to religious or political grounds: “Just because Spain is a ‘traditionally Catholic country,’ we have to suppose that all health professionals are scared and don’t want to do it? I don’t believe that.”
She points out that Catalunya, a more liberal and progressive region, has similar issues of conscientious objection to the rest of the country. McKinney agrees, pointing to the wide variations in interpretations of the Catholic Church’s “labyrinthine catechism” in different countries. “It would be wrong to say that Catholicism across the globe operates the same way. So while it is true that the pro-life movement in the United States begins as a Catholic movement … the Catholic Church becomes displaced over time by Evangelism as the center anchoring point.” However, some of the strongest anti-abortion voices in Spain are explicitly aligned with Catholicism, such as the far-right political party Vox and the Catholic lobby group Hazte Oír (Make Yourself Heard).
Although the outlook for anti-abortion protestors in Spain appears bleak now, Jimenez says she and her colleagues remain calm. She argues that the law “has just given us visibility,” calling it “evidence of the powers of prayer and the power of 40 Days.” Jimenez admits that “it will sadly affect the sidewalk counselors, but they are other groups. In our case, we only pray silently without moving from our place, it’s almost impossible for us to go up to people because of this.” Despite the law representing, in her view, “a huge injustice,” she told me she will “rely on God that everything is going to be fine.”