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Laying Claim to Our Bodies

| May 7, 2014

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Women line up in Madrid to register their bodies

I was horrified when I saw my birth certificate from Lahore for the first time. It stated that my father had produced a female child—no mention of my mother, the walking womb. My name was given later by the male head of my father’s family.

As I researched the protest movement of women registering ownership of their bodies in Spain, I had a sad realization that decades later, in Europe, the struggle over who “owns” a woman’s womb is still ongoing. In a few weeks, the Spanish parliament will vote on a revised abortion law that would severely restrict a woman’s right to abortion. If passed in current form, Spain would join Ireland in going back in time to back-alley abortions for the poor, and abortions abroad for the financially able.

As news of the proposed law circulated a few months ago, Yolanda Dominguez, a visual artist in Madrid, decided to turn the logic around with a simple, powerful tool. “We are always being commodified, as if we are the property of another—it was the men of our families, now the state,” says Dominguez. “So I decided to make my body my property, and I went to the property registration office where one registers cars, houses, etc. to register myself.”

On February 5, 2014, in response to Dominguez’ call, queues of women formed in the Chamber of Commerce of Personal Property in Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Se

ville, Pamplona, and Pontevedra, demanding to officially certify that their bodies belong to them. Local officials, some amused and perplexed, complied, and a movement was born. So far some 1,000 women have gone to register their bodies. “It’s a simple form that I made available online,” says Dominguez. “Some men wanted to join us, but so far we have kept it to women.”

Prior to 1985, abortion was illegal in Spain. The Socialists (PSOE), who came to power in 1982, brought in a limited law making it legal in cases of rape, fetal abnormalities, and danger to the woman’s health. The government of Prime Minister Aznar of the conservative People’s Party (PP), which followed the Socialists from 1996 to 2004, left the abortion laws as they were. Abortion rates continued to rise, at 11.5 per 1,000 births, approaching Western Europe’s average of 12.

When the Socialists returned to power in 2004, they decided to further liberalize the abortion law. Despite opposition from conservatives, in 2010 they passed the current law, which allows abortion up to 14 weeks, or 22 weeks for fetal abnormalities. “Now women did not have to ask for a medical exemption—effectively it became abortion on demand,” says Deputy (representative) Juan Moscoso del Prado (PSOE).

Senator Ana Torme (PP) fumes, “They did not discuss it with us; it was passed unilaterally. In Spain women have all the rights to sexuality, but I believe it does not mean having the right to take another human life.”

One issue that is not clear is what do the majority of Spanish voters want on this issue. “Not only women but 80 percent of the public agree with the current law, according to recent opinion polls,” according to PSOE Deputy Marivi Monteserin.

“If that was the case,” counters Senator Torme, “they would not have voted for us; we made it clear in our party manifesto that we would push back to the right to life.” Indeed, the 214-page PP party manifesto states, on page 108: “We will promote a law protecting motherhood with measures to support pregnant women, especially those who are in difficult situations. Support networks will promote motherhood. We will change the model of the current regulation on abortion to reinforce protection of the right to life and of minors.”

At the time of the 2011 elections, Spain had an unemployment rate of about 26 percent, one of the highest in the European Union. The key issue on voters’ minds was whether the country was going to be thrown out of the Eurozone; the PP was seen as the stronger party on economic issues. The Socialists were also too complacent. “We assumed, wrongly, that for abortion it would be as under Aznar,” says Moscoso.

There is no multiparty dialogue on this issue. The dialogue is within the governing party, where there are some women in the center who are opposed to the proposed changes, including Vice President Celia Villalobos. “We have to fight for women with the center of PP,” says Monteserin.

Pharmacists are also waiting for clarity on the morning-after pill. “Right now the morning-after pill can be bought by anyone without a minimum age for 20 euros,” says Bilbao pharmacist Enara Ruiz. “But the law allows pharmacists who for religious reasons don’t want to sell contraception to not sell—from condoms to morning-after pills.”

As all sides await the final bill, Dominguez remains optimistic. “I will wait for the result. If its not approved, I will celebrate the success of every woman. If the law is approved, I will think in more ways to express our opinion.”

Dominguez is aware that “registering ownership of [our] bodies is a symbolic action.” If abortion is made illegal again by passage of the bill, this piece of paper will not force a doctor to perform an abortion or protect a provider of abortion.

Women, however, are still filing in to Personal Property offices to register. “I do not know these women,” says Dominguez, “but we do need the public to know them and what they think.”

 

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