MADRID – A huge crowd rallied in Madrid Saturday against a bill to ease restrictions on abortion — a vivid and emotional show of how the issue remains sensitive two decades after abortion was legalized in this traditionally Roman Catholic country.
The crowd of at least tens of thousands of people waved banners, balloons and red-and-yellow Spanish flags as it marched down a major Madrid boulevard with the slogan "Every Life Matters."
Civic groups predicted 1 million or more people would attend, and said they chartered some 600 buses to bring people in from other cities. Spanish police systematically refuse to give turnout estimates for protests.
The protest was called to denounce a bill sponsored by the Socialist government that would allow unrestricted abortion at up to 14 weeks of pregnancy and let girls aged 16 and 17 have abortions without parental consent.
Under the country's 1985 abortion law, the procedure is allowed in cases of rape or fetal malformation, or when doctors deem a pregnant woman's physical or mental health to be in danger — a clause that has allowed for abortions to be carried out more or less freely. Most of Spain's yearly 100,000 abortions come under that clause.
But at least on paper women who abort outside these limits commit a crime and are liable for prison, though punishment is rare. The new bill would eliminate that stigma, declaring abortion to be their right and wiping away the possibility of jail time.
Parliament is expected to vote this year on the legislation. The Socialist government says the law would give women full rights over their reproductive choices and bring Spain into line with other European countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, which also unrestricted abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.
One protester, 41-year-old lawyer Belen Lopez, said human life begins at conception, and that Spain was erring in following other countries' examples and instead should not allow abortion at all.
"The other countries that do that are also wrong about what the conception of life is," Lopez said.
Andrea Caballeria, 15, said she opposed the clause allowing minors to abort without parental consent.
"I don't think it is right for a 16-year-old girl to take the decision to kill a child, who is a person who can be like me or you in a few years," she said.