“Please help me” wrote Marta* from Spain who needed to access an abortion in June 2020. “I went to the nearest public health centre, and they asked me to think it over for five days. When I came back, they asked me to think it over again, because, as the doctor put it, I am running out of time to become a mother.”
This message was sent to Women on Web, an online abortion service that provides women with vital information on how to have a safe abortion by taking a combination of pills. Marta had been misinformed by her public health centre – the law in Spain asks women to reflect on their decision for just three days. This is important in such cases, as there are time limits on when women can have abortions.
Marta’s story reflects what is at stake in a lawsuit that my organisation, Women’s Link Worldwide, filed last week before the Spanish National Court, on behalf of Women on Web. Without accurate, comprehensive information about their legal rights and healthcare options, women don’t know what to do or where to go to get a safe abortion and may be denied their reproductive rights in practice.
In early 2020, the Spanish government blocked Women on Web – making Spain the only European Union country that has censored this website. The government alleges that the website sends women drugs that are banned from being sold online in the country. However, it has so far failed to provide any evidence of this – and we are challenging this baseless censorship that is harming women who need help.
Women on Web is an online platform where women can share their experiences and access information based on WHO-approved scientific evidence. The website is available in sixteen languages and it adapts the information it displays to the country from where women are contacting them. In the case of Spain, they gave women information on how they can access abortion in the public healthcare system.
Even in countries with progressive abortion laws, a lack of information is still one of the main obstacles women face when attempting to access their rights. This is the case in Spain, where a law passed in 2010 allows abortion in a wide range of circumstances (on-demand until the fourteenth week of pregnancy and under certain medical circumstances after that). Women on Web played an important role in providing information on abortion rights – which the government has failed to do.
Ten years later after the current abortion law was passed, the Spanish government has still not launched an official campaign to inform women about their rights. In that time, it has carried out more than 80 campaigns about other medical issues.
The scarce official information about abortion that is available is highly technical, doesn’t explain in simple language how to obtain an abortion, time limits or requirements, and is not available in languages other than Spanish.
This affects staff in public health facilities, too. Unaware of the right protocols to follow, they may give incorrect instructions or even deny access to abortion, particularly for women with irregular immigration status or temporary residence.
No help in the pandemic
Another challenge for women seeking legal abortions at public hospitals in Spain is that medical staff can refuse to perform them on the grounds of ‘conscientious objection’. As a result, according to the Ministry of Health data 91% of abortions performed between 2010 and 2018 happened at private clinics.
During COVID-19, women’s access to abortion has gotten harder amid lockdowns and restricted mobility. The government hasn’t launched a campaign to inform women on how to access abortion in this context. Nor has it sought to mitigate the obstacles women face in accessing services by introducing telemedicine initiatives like those set up in Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Ireland and the UK.
Many women in Spain turned to Women on Web for information about abortion access. Now they can’t do this either– and we don’t know what’s happening to these women as a result. Are they getting the information they need or are they being left in the dark, having to deal with unsafe abortions or forced pregnancies?
With our lawsuit, we aim not only to unblock Women on Web’s website, but also to call attention to the obstacles women face when attempting to access abortion services in Spain. All women deserve to have accurate, comprehensive information about their abortion rights, and timely and dignified access to these services.
* Not her real name