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Spain’s prime minister pushes ahead with anti-abortion legislation despite almost no popular support

In the midst of a jobs crisis and economic dysfunction, Spain now must face a bitter debate over government plans to radically restrict women’s rights.

BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has a lot to worry about.

Despite tentative signs of economic recovery, more than a quarter of the workforce is still looking for a job. The legacy of a burst property bubble has saddled the country with around a million unsold homes and much of the banking sector remains crippled by debt.

In politics, Spain’s most populous and richest region — Catalonia — is threatening to break away after an independence referendum this year while the ruling conservative party reels from graft allegations and another fraud scandal is sapping respect for the monarchy.

Not the best time, then, to launch a bitterly divisive new policy initiative opposed by more than 80 percent of the population, including a significant slice of his own party.

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Undaunted, Rajoy is pushing ahead with plans to roll back a 2010 law introduced by the previous Socialist administration that made it easier for Spanish women to get an abortion.

Rajoy says the new law — which will allow abortions only in cases of rape or where pregnancy presents a grave threat to the women’s health — is the fulfillment of an electoral promise.

But he’s unleashed a storm of opposition at home and abroad with what would be a European first in reversing liberalized abortion rights.

“The whole of Spain has risen up against this erosion of women’s freedom and their right to decide something which is entirely their own concern,” wrote novelist Rosa Regas on the website of a campaign coalition that’s planning mass demonstrations on Saturday.

The abortion debate is particularly polarizing for a society with a deeply conservative Catholic tradition, but also a vigorous feminist movement linked to liberal and socialist political movements that emerged in the 1970s after the end of a four-decade right-wing dictatorship.

Eighty one percent of voters oppose Rajoy’s proposed law, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Invymark marketing research company. Just 12.3 percent expressed support.

The bill, which is being debated in parliament following its approval by Rajoy’s government
in December, would give Spain one of Europe‘s most restrictive abortion laws.

It would end the current system, which lets women choose abortion freely during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Instead, they would be obliged to secure the approval of two doctors who could consent only in cases of rape or serious health risk to the mother.

Even severe fetal malformations wouldn’t qualify for abortions in most cases despite having been legal since the mid-1980s.

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“This is an attack on our rights and our dignity,” Elena Valenciano, deputy leader of the main opposition Socialist Party, told a recent conference. “This is not a law against abortion, it’s a law against women.”

Although Rajoy may have expected such a reaction from the center-left, the level of opposition from within his own conservative People’s Party has caught him by surprise.

Among the PP’s supporters, 68 percent agree that “every pregnant woman should have the right to decide whether to continue or not with her pregnancy,” according to a survey published this month in the newspaper El Pais.

Several senior party members have spoken out against the bill, but the PP’s branch in the western region of Extramadura has become the main focal point of dissent.

“No one can deny a woman her right to become a mother, nor can they oblige her to become one,” reads a motion drafted by the PP faction in the regional parliament.

The text calls on Rajoy’s government in Madrid to suspend passage of the bill pending the opening of a dialogue with other political forces. That debate, it says, should lead to an abortion law that’s “much more consensual, in line with today’s pluralistic and educated society, and with legislation in neighboring countries.”

Rajoy is also drawing flak from abroad. In France, where parliament is debating a bill to liberalize abortion, politicians been unusually vocal in their criticism of a neighboring country – in part for fear Spanish seeking to terminate their pregnancies will be driven across the border.

“This law … would mark a dangerous backward step in a country where women’s rights have been the focus of debate in recent years,” a group of French female politicians from the left and right wrote Friday in El Pais.

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Opinion polls suggest Spain’s ruling party is losing votes over the issue.

Polls show the Socialists taking a nationwide lead over the PP for the first time since Rajoy defeated them in November 2011 elections.

Nevertheless, the prime minister is under pressure from the party’s right to push ahead with the new law.

Spain hasn’t seen the emergence of a radical-right challenge to the conservative mainstream — such as the National Front in France, Britain’s UKIP and the Dutch Freedom Party — so far. But Rajoy still needs to watch his right flank.

Earlier this month, a group of PP veterans announced the formation of a new breakaway conservative and nationalist party called VOX that’s determined to oppose abortion.