A heartfelt debate

A heartfelt debate



Friday, 20 January 2023, 12:09


In a sign of things to come throughout this crucial electoral year, the Spanish right and left are clashing over what is arguably the most sensitive and contentious social issue of all: abortion. But legal and terminological confusions are creeping in on both sides, making an already-fraught debate even more heated.

First: comparisons with Hungary are misleading. The Vox element of the PP-led government of Castilla y León proposed giving women the *option* of hearing their foetus's "heartbeat" (more on that term in a second) in the process of making a decision about the termination of a pregnancy.

Late last year, by contrast, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban made doing so *obligatory* for any woman requesting an abortion.

Hungary's law is therefore more deserving of the label "coercive" than Vox's proposal, although in both cases more subtle objections rest on the charge of inducing guilt.

Second, the issue of rights is not as clear-cut as Pedro Sánchez's government made out in objecting to Vox's proposal. Spain legalised abortion during the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy in 2010; and while it's right to oppose attempts to undo that progress (especially on the basis of simplistic religious convictions), it's hard to see how Vox's proposal would have threatened any Constitutionally protected freedoms.

Giving women the choice to learn more about the state of their foetus while making a decision of such profound importance isn't, in itself, an attack on a fundamental right.

It would have been fascinating to see what the Constitutional Court made of the matter, had the dispute between Vox and the central government gone that far.

Then there's the issue of whether the term "heartbeat" is accurate in this context.

The emotionally charged question of whether an embryo is a "person" has lately been in the political spotlight in the US, where several states have introduced six-week "heartbeat" abortion bans following last year's Roe v Wade ruling. Medical experts were quick to criticise the restrictions, pointing out that at such an early stage of growth the foetus doesn't have a heart in any way that we understand the word: rather, the embryonic tissue pulses.

One leading gynecologist in Canada and the US suggested that "foetal pole cardiac activity" would be more accurate than "heartbeat".

Admirably accurate as the term may be, it's hard to see it catching on in a debate that's so infused with moral and religious convictions that the fundamental points of contention are often overlooked.

Spain's deeply polarised politics also obscure the fact that there are no simple rights and wrongs when it comes to abortion, certainly not those pushed by "pro-life" Catholic reactionaries.

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