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Abortion battle is back

Times Staff Writer

The woman was still woozy from anesthesia when Italian police interrogated her shortly after she had had an abortion. Then they confiscated the fetus.

In Spain, police have swept into clinics, hauled away cartons of medical records and questioned dozens of women who had terminated their pregnancies, sometimes showing up at their homes, to their great mortification.

In Italy and Spain, two of Europe’s most predominantly Roman Catholic countries, opponents of abortion are finding new ways to challenge laws and use the issue to influence national elections, a generation after most citizens thought the issue was resolved.

Spurred on by the church, antiabortion activists have staged demonstrations and circulated petitions, gathering thousands of names. On the other side of the debate, thousands of women have turned out in demonstrations to demand that laws allowing the termination of pregnancy be protected.

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When it came to power four years ago, Spain’s socialist government made liberal social reform a hallmark of its administration and promised legislation to expand access to abortion.

But by the time it ran for reelection last month, it had dropped abortion from its platform as Spanish bishops all but directed citizens to vote against candidates who didn’t oppose it.

In the campaign for Italian elections next Sunday, abortion has emerged unexpectedly as a major issue. One particularly vocal political figure, a conservative newspaper editor and former government minister, is running for parliament on a single point: ending abortion.

Thirty years ago, Italy legalized abortion-on-demand for pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and up to 24 weeks when there are abnormalities in the fetus or the health of the woman is in danger.

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Spain legalized abortion in 1985; women can terminate a pregnancy up to 12 weeks in case of rape, 22 weeks if the fetus is malformed and at any time if a doctor certifies grave risk to the woman’s physical or psychological health.

The vast majority of abortions in Spain have been performed under this last category, and critics allege that the provision is abused. Police questioning women who have had abortions often ask whether they really saw a psychiatrist or doctor to attest they were at risk.

The issue made headlines when a Danish journalist using a hidden camera taped a doctor in Barcelona apparently agreeing to end her pregnancy in its 26th week, merely on her demand.

The doctor, Carlos Morin, and six other medical personnel were arrested, the chain of clinics Morin owns was shut down, and at least 40 of his patients (some of whom underwent the procedure five years ago) were questioned by the Civil Guard.

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After that incident late last year, the local governments of Madrid and Barcelona, which are more conservative than the national administration, launched, or at least permitted, a crackdown on clinics in a bid to find out whether illegal late-term abortions were being performed.

Clinics have been subjected to dozens of surprise inspections, even those that had passed the requirements for licensing, according to the association that represents the facilities.

“It is harassment, a political persecution,” said Empar Pineda, spokeswoman for one of the targets, Madrid’s Isadora clinic.

At the clinic, which is named for Isadora Duncan, surveillance cameras keep watch outside as women and a few men fill the waiting rooms. The facility, a busy provider of abortions as well as sexual health services, finds its windows smashed or its walls smeared with graffiti a couple of times a year.

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More than 25 women who received abortions at the clinic have been interrogated by police, and the clinic was forced to turn over the medical files of at least 50 patients.

Late last month, the clinic’s director and two of its doctors were questioned on suspicion of performing illegal late-term abortions, which the clinic denies.

At one point, an inspector required the clinic to remove aborted fetuses, normally disposed of according to stringent regulations, in a hearse.

Civil Guard officers have turned up at the homes of some patients to question them, a mortifying experience because many women do not tell their families. And many women don’t know whether they’re being questioned as witnesses or suspects.

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“We can no longer give guarantees of airtight confidentiality,” Pineda said. “There is a lot of fear, precaution, a sense of vulnerability.”

Contrary to popular perception, nearly 90% of abortions in Spain are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with fewer than 2% occurring after 21 weeks, Pineda said, citing Health Ministry statistics.

Of all the trouble clinics face these days, Pineda said, the biggest “slap in the face” came when the Socialist Party reneged on promises to expand access to abortion. A party official, Elena Valenciano, said the Socialists already had an ugly fight with the political right and the Roman Catholic Church on their hands, so it made sense “not to touch” a law that met European standards and “functions reasonably well.”

Indeed, the church has been a moving force behind the new antiabortion movement in Spain and Italy. The Isadora clinic is decorated with posters showing a panorama of Catholic cardinals in red cassocks and the slogan, “Don’t let them decide for you.”

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The influence of the church in Italy, home to the Vatican and the pope, is especially strong.

Even among leftist parties, there is discord over strong abortion-rights legislation -- exacerbated when the abortion issue was pushed to the center of election-season debate by an incident in Naples in February.

Police, acting on an anonymous tip that a “murder” was being committed at a hospital there, interrogated a woman shortly after she terminated her pregnancy.

According to the hospital, she was aborting at 21 weeks after serious abnormalities were discovered with the fetus. Though she was within the legal limit, police confiscated the fetus.

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“They bombarded me with questions,” the woman, identified in the Italian press as Silvana, told the daily La Repubblica. “They gave me the third degree: What had happened, why did I have an abortion, who was the father? They even asked me if I paid the doctors.”

The incident angered many Italians but also gave fodder to the political right, which has seized on the issue and its power to divide the left. With former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the helm, the center-right is leading in polls for the upcoming national elections.

Berlusconi has said he personally does not believe abortion should be part of an election debate, but has helped fuel the debate by calling for an international “moratorium” on abortion.

He echoed, in part, his old friend Giuliano Ferrara, a conservative journalist who launched his own campaign for election on the platform of “Abortion: No Thanks.”

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Ferrara says abortion is evil and should be eradicated, not by outlawing it but by creating conditions that encourage women to have babies and make it next to impossible for them to terminate their pregnancies.

His position won immediate praise from top Vatican officials, although Ferrara says his position is not based on Catholic faith.

The number of abortions performed in Italy has declined precipitously since its legalization, which supporters say is an indication that the law is effective and does not need changing.

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wilkinson@latimes.com


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