SPAIN – Abortion is prohibited in Rioja

Rioja is a province and autonomous community in northern Spain. A report in a feminist magazine called Pikara, published on 17 February 2021, reported that all the gynaecology staff in Rioja have signed a conscientious objection statement in order not to have to do voluntary abortions. Women from Rioja are therefore referred to other provinces, which can delay their abortions by as much as two weeks, despite the fact that the upper time limit for a legal abortion on request is 14 weeks and a three-day reflection period is also required.

This article focuses on the personal experiences of women who have tried to get an abortion in Rioja. After it was published, many feminist activists in the province expressed concern because they didn’t realise this situation existed. Other voices have been raised from other regions of Spain as well. This is very important for us at Women’s Link Worldwide, as we have been denouncing these situations for years and they are finally starting to get space in the media via personal testimonies, and not only based on the official statistics we have shared. The following are excerpts from the much longer Pikara article.

When Maria realised she was pregnant, she made an appointment with her family doctor for an abortion. She was a single mother with a one-year-old son and couldn’t consider having another child at the time. The doctor was about to say “congratulations” when Maria burst into tears. “She treated me very well and started the process for me, but she was the only doctor who did treat me well.” Her doctor did not have the papers she needed for Maria to get an appointment at the local hospital, where she would be counselled and formally request an abortion. After the papers were finally sent in, however, the hospital did not contact Maria to make an appointment for ten days. So she went in person to ask what the problem was, and was told that the hospital, and no other hospital in Rioja, public or private, would help with abortion because of conscientious objection.

So Maria had to go looking for another hospital to counsel her. However, the staff at the one she found was on holiday for a week. By the time she saw someone, it was on a Wednesday, she was eight weeks pregnant. She was told she had to wait to collect the papers until the following Monday, though that was longer than the required three days for reflection. She began to feel overwhelmed because yet another week was going to go by. When she returned for the consultation and confirmed she wanted an abortion, she was given three options, all of which involved travel to another city – Zaragoza, Pamplona or Bilbao. She chose Bilbao because it was closest and she had a friend there. By the time she was able to get an appointment however, she was already 11.5 weeks pregnant. That was too late for medical abortion pills so she had a surgical abortion, and was given only a sedative.

Another woman, a mother of two children, was given a very hard time by the doctor who she saw to get permission for the abortion. She said: “In my case I already had two children. I know what a fetus can turn into later. It was very unpleasant. They even told me that they recommended I have my tubes tied, that I was irresponsible. I had to do a lot of paperwork and it took two weeks for me to make an appointment at a clinic in Pamplona. Then you get there and you find an anti-abortion demonstration at the door, telling you to put it up for adoption. I had to ask for the day off to go there, paying for the trip out of my pocket, have the intervention at five in the afternoon and by seven return home… When I had my third child, I was fired from my job while breastfeeding, despite having been at the company for five years. It’s easy to say don’t abort, of course, but then look what happens.”

Another woman described how she experienced contraceptive failure and was told by the local hospital that abortion was illegal. As a public defender herself, she knew that was wrong, but rather than argue she decided to go to a private hospital in Logroño, the capital of Rioja, where they explained that they did not perform abortions either and that she should try a gynaecology clinic in the city. In the end she found a private clinic in Vitoria, a city near Bilbao, and paid 300 Euros plus the bus trip. The boyfriend had freaked out and disappeared, so she was relieved she hadn’t had the baby. She said she didn’t dare to tell her family as she felt ashamed. “Before my abortion, I had no idea that this sort of thing was happening because no one talks about it,” she said.

One of the places that women in Rioja are seen locally is the hospital emergency room – if they are miscarrying, that is. “Officially, there is no one who performs abortions in Rioja, but sometimes women with ‘an abortion in progress’ arrive at the emergency room, and then they do care for you, of course, because it has already happened. Women come in bleeding because someone has given them the abortion pills, this happens a lot.”

There are also private clinics making money out of this situation. In 2019 the Socialist Party won the election in Rioja, and formed a government with United We Can. Although the pandemic has delayed action, a commitment has been made to ensure that a sufficient number of gynaecologists will provide abortions. A new equality bill is also on the table and ideas are being discussed for a law that will ensure abortion is provided in Rioja in the public health system. Let’s hope so.

BACKGROUND: by Laura Martínez Valero, Women’s Link Worldwide, E-mail: 11 March 2021.
REPORT: Prohibido abortar en La Rioja, by Teresa Villaverde, Pikara, 17 February 2021 (en español). VISUAL: Pikara logo.