Spain’s Lower House Advances Bill That Would Criminalize Pro-Life Witness Near Abortion Facilities

A 40 Days for Life prayer vigil outside an abortion facility in Madrid.
A 40 Days for Life prayer vigil outside an abortion facility in Madrid. (photo: Twitter 40 días por la vida. / 40 Days for Life)

MADRID, Spain — The lower house of Spain's legislature voted Tuesday to take up consideration of a bill proposed by the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party that would criminalize “harassment” of women entering abortion facilities. 

The Congress of Deputies advanced the bill by a Sept. 21 vote of 199 to 144, with two abstentions. Only the two largest opposition parties, the People's Party and Vox, voted against it.

The bill was introduced May 21 by the PSOE’s coalition. It would criminalize “harassing women going to facilities for the voluntary interruption of pregnancy.” Anyone promoting, favoring, or participating in demonstrations near abortion facilities would be subject to penalties.

Penalties for what would be deemed harassment would include jail terms of three months to a year, or community service from 31 to 80 days. Depending on circumstances, an individual could also be barred from a particular location for between six months and three years.

In the exposition of motives for introducing the bill, the PSOE characterized the “harassment” of pro-life witness at abortion facilities as “approaching women with photographs, model fetuses, and proclamations against abortion … the objective is for the women to change their decision through coercion, intimidation, and harassment.”

The socialist parliamentary group said it “considers it essential to guarantee a safety zone” around abortion facilities.

During debate on the bill, María Teresa Angulo Romero of the People’s Party criticized it for penalizing "fundamental rights such as freedom of speech or assembly because what underlies is a sectarian limitation of rights because of the ideas of those who exercise them,” reported ABC, a Spanish daily.

“You don’t want to penalize supposed coercion, if so, your proposal would be unnecessary because the Penal Code already covers coercion. You want to prohibit the right of assembly or free speech where and by whom you don’t like,” the PP lawmaker said.

She also spoke of the “dubious constitutionality” of the bill that seeks to “criminalize the right to peaceful assembly or free speech” of pro-life groups "just because they don't think like” the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez.

Vox member María Ruiz Solás said that the PSOE is “legislating at the behest of abortion clinics" and “criminalizing” pro-life groups whose “only wish is for women to know that there are other options than abortion,” according to ABC.

“Have the gatherings of the pro-life groups prevented women from entering the clinics? If this happened, there would be complaints and convictions and there aren’t any. Not one. Defending an idea is not coercion,” she asserted.

Sara Giménez Giménez of Citizens, another opposition party, pointed out that the proposal doesn’t have “enough legal certainty” and stressed that abortion “is not a constitutional right,” although in the end her party voted in its favor.

One outreach the bill could ban is Life Ambulance, which offers “a free ultrasound in front of the abortion clinic to show the mother the reality of her child and the heartbeat of her baby.”

The president of the Spanish Family Forum, Ignacio García Juliá, said the bill is an ideological measure which reinforces the law of the strongest, and a protectionist measure of a very particular oligopoly.

The group also said that the bill “not only protects spurious interests not based on the common good, but also channels it through the power of the State, curtailing fundamental rights, such as the freedom of speech or assembly of all citizens, since any of them could go to an abortion clinic to  chat tranqilly and to offer their support to the woman who is considering an abortion.”

Thus “fundamental rights for the existence of a free and democratic society” are diminished, the pro-life organization said.

Bishop José Ignacio Munilla Aguirre of San Sebastián on Twitter encouraged people to share a video that shows a young child tenderly cuddling a baby sibling and singing a nursery rhyme "as a fitting response to the gag law that aims to eliminate in Spain any form of pro-life presence in the vicinity of abortion clinics.”

Several locales have in recent years considered or adopted “buffer zones” around abortion facilities that limit free speech in the protected areas. 

Pro-choice activists in 2020 called on the Scottish government to ban prayer and public discussion of abortion in the vicinity of the country’s abortion facilities.

Proposals for buffer zones around abortion facilities throughout England and Wales were rejected as disproportionate by the then-British Home Secretary in September 2018, after finding that most abortion protests are peaceful and passive.

Sajid Javid said that after reviewing the evidence, which included “upsetting examples of harassment … what is clear from the evidence we gathered is that these activities are not the norm, and predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature.”

The typical activities of those protesting outside of abortion facilities in England and Wales “include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets,” Javid noted.

In England, a buffer zone was imposed by Ealing Council, in west London, around a Marie Stopes abortion clinic in April 2018. The zone prevents any pro-life gathering or speech, including prayer, within about 330 feet of the facility.

The Ealing buffer zone was cited by Javid as an example of a local government using civil legislation “to restrict harmful protest activities,” rather than a nationwide policy.

Shortly after the Ealing buffer zone was adopted, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said that “to remove from the environment of the abortion clinics alternative voices is to limit freedom of choice … The imposition of ‘no-prayer zones’ outside clinics – I mean prayerful vigil, not militant or disruptive action – is unhelpful, unjust and unnecessary,” Bishop Egan said.