Spain gay rights and abortion activists fear backlash

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Madrid

image copyrightAP
image captionSpain's gay couples won the right to marry under the Socialists

The centre-right Popular Party (PP) won Spain's general election promising to lead the country out of economic crisis and restore investor confidence in its solvency.

Uncertainty over how precisely it plans to do that continues to rattle the financial markets.

But the mystery surrounding PP policy in other areas is proving equally unsettling for some Spaniards.

Gay-rights groups are concerned about the fate of the same-sex marriage law. Feminists worry a new conservative government will reverse the new abortion law.

Both were Socialist Party initiatives, and the PP lodged immediate appeals against both in the Constitutional Court.

'Sword of Damocles'

So the mayor of one small town in Andalusia says there has been a surge of interest in his "express-marriage" service for same-sex couples anxious to tie the knot as soon as possible.

"They're afraid of what the PP will do," Jose Antonio Rodriguez told the BBC from Jun.

"Before the election debate on TV, about 60 couples had contacted me. Now I reply to about 100 enquires a day."

In that TV debate, the Socialist Party candidate called on his opponent to remove "the sword of Damocles hanging over couples' heads" by withdrawing the Pop's appeal against the gay marriage law.

Mariano Rajoy responded that it is "just a question of name" - he prefers the term "civil union" - and concluded that he would "wait for the decision of the court".

But for those affected, the name is everything.

"It [marriage] means that all families are recognised as equal," argues Antonio Poveda, president of Spain's Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals (FELGTB).

That equality - including the right for gay couples to adopt - was hard-won after decades of discrimination under General Franco's dictatorship.

"There was a poll just after the transition to democracy and 85% of people thought homosexuality was an illness or should be punished. We have moved from there to having equal rights," Mr Poveda says.

image copyrightReuters
image captionRajoy's PP stressed the 'right to life' during the campaign

He argues that such rights should be cherished.

"It was a great day for democracy here when the same-sex marriage law was passed. For the first time, Catholic Spain became a reference point for social rights," says Antonio Poveda.

"The economic crisis will pass, but the legacy this government will leave are those advances in equal rights."

Despite its deep Catholic roots, Spain was the third country ever to legalise gay marriage.

About 20,000 couples have wed since the civil code was changed in 2005. A 2011 survey showed that 77% support for the reform among 15- to 29-year-olds.

Abortion fears

But it is not the Socialists' only major reform with an uncertain future.

At the PP victory rally on Sunday, a group of young women unfurled a long banner demanding changes to the legislation on abortion. The party counts many staunch Catholics among its supporters.

A new law in 2010 allowed abortion on demand up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy. The government framed the reform in terms of the woman's right to choose.

The PP argued then for the rights of the unborn child, and it still does now.

Its electoral programme talks of "protecting and supporting" maternity, and says it plans to alter the abortion law "to reinforce the protection of the right to life".

The party also opposes a new clause allowing girls of 16 or 17 to end a pregnancy without their parents' knowledge.

"When Rajoy says he wants to increase the right to life, we understand that he wants to return to the 1985 law which only allowed abortion in exceptional cases," says Ignacio Arsuaga of the anti-abortion campaign group Hazteoir.

Then, terminations were permitted in cases of rape, foetal deformity or risk to the mother's physical or mental health.

In practice, it was relatively easy to get an abortion on mental health grounds, with minimal explanation required.

Secret agenda?

Supporters of the new law argue it is too soon to see its real impact. But they are sure there has been no surge in terminations.

"The number of abortions has fallen, because the crisis means there are fewer immigrant women here and because of the morning-after pill," argues feminist Empar Pineda. She says immigrant women accounted for 54% of abortions in Madrid.

"I think the government would find it difficult to change the law now," she argues. "Spanish society has already taken it on board and they'd come under heavy criticism."

In the run-up to the vote, the Socialist Party campaigned with scare tactics. It warned of a secret PP agenda - not only to bring spending cuts - but to reverse its progressive reforms.

One advert made by supporters shows a female couple's marriage certificate being torn up; another has voters shouting at the PP for clarity on its plans.

In the current climate, the party will be forced to make economic recovery its priority. Less urgent - highly divisive - issues will likely be left hanging.

In the meantime, the mayor of Jun has his work cut out, marrying gay couples unwilling to take any chances.

"People have relaxed a bit, because the PP won't actually take over government until the end of December. But I'm still getting a huge number of enquiries."

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