A placard reading “A mother by choice” at a pro-choice protest in Spain. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Spain’s war on abortion: it's not about morality – it’s about austerity

Attacking women’s rights isn’t just a diversion tactic. It’s a bid for votes from cultural conservatives.

Porque Yo Decido. Because I decide. That was the title of a manifesto handed to the Spanish government on 1 February on behalf of the millions of men and women across the country who oppose the conservative Peoples Party’s push to ban abortion. “Because it’s my choice,” reads the manifesto. “I am free, and I live in a democracy, I demand from the government, any government, that it make laws that promote moral autonomy, preserve freedom of conscience, and guarantee plurality and diversity.”

In late December, the Peoples Party (PP) government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, approved a bill that will make abortion illegal in all but the most extreme medical circumstances and in cases of rape. “That was when the explosion of resistance happened,” says feminist activist Cristina Lestegas Perez. “Since then, there have been hundreds of street protests, debates, demonstrations, parades, conferences, seminars, exhibitions and performances all over the Spanish states and overseas.”

Under the Franco regime, abortion was illegal in Spain. In 1985, laws were passed permitting termination of pregnancy in very limited cases, but so many Spanish women were travelling to Britain to have abortions that dedicated flights had to be chartered. In 2010, the law was finally liberalised by the then socialist government to permit abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy.

If the parliament passes the bill, as it almost certainly will, Spain will once again have one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Women will be forced to carry pregnancies to term even in cases of severe fetal abnormality. Teenage girls will require the consent of a parent to have an abortion under any circumstances. “This law will take Spanish women back to dictatorship times when we needed the consent of our fathers or husbands to do anything,” says lawyer Maria Alvarez, who has been active in the pro-choice protests from the start. “In my opinion, hearing a priest speaking about my uterus is disgusting and obscene. I haven’t seen any priests or bishops in any of the demos against domestic violence. They don't give a damn about women. They want to control us. They won’t win this battle!”

The clause that allows for abortion in cases of rape gives the lie to the Spanish government’s claims to be “pro-life”. If one’s true and primary concern is the sanctity of human life, then how that life came about should not be an overwhelming consideration. However, if one’s real motive is restricting women’s sexual freedom, then it makes sense that women and girls who got pregnant without consenting to sex should be spared the punishment of forced childbirth. That, of course, is what’s really on the table when the global “pro-life” movement speaks, as the Spanish Justice Minister did, of “protecting” women by treating them like idiot criminals, incapable of making decisions about their own bodies and their own futures.

The Spanish government’s concern for the rights of unborn children appears to terminate swiftly once those children have been born. Six months ago, the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human rights watchdog, has warned Spain that its austerity programme could have a devastating impact on its children, 30 per cent of whom now live in poverty. And here we get to the crux of the issue, the real reason that the abortion rights question is back on the table in Spain. It’s not about morality. It’s about austerity.

In the years since the global economic crisis of 2008, politicians worldwide have used attacks on abortion, contraception and LGBT rights to distract attention from fiscal disaster. As the European parliamentary elections approach, the Rajoy administration has a great deal from which to distract voters’ attention. Unemployment stands at 26 per cent. The government has been mired in corruption scandals for many months. It has no coherent political narrative to offer those who voted for the PP out of despair except more austerity. To say that women’s right to decide what happens to their own bodies has been used as a political football is accurate only if one thinks back to those playground days when the boys who had the football routinely trampled over the entire yard, ruining everyone else’s games.

The PP, like many other conservative and neoliberal parties across the west, has no compelling story to offer its core voting base in a time of cuts, and is losing support to new parties that are further to the right, like the Vox party, which has been compared to the Tea Party in the United States and to UKIP in Britain. The new abortion law isn’t the only high-profile policing of women’s sexuality that the PP has been pushing. In July 2013, just corruption scandals involving senior ministers were reported, the government voted to forbid single women and lesbians from accessing fertility treatment except through prohibitively expensive private clinics. Attacking women’s rights isn’t just a diversion tactic. It’s a bid for votes from cultural conservatives.

The enormous pro-choice backlash in Spain is as much about democracy as it is about women’s freedom. In forcing through the new conservative abortion law against the wishes of 80 per cent of the population, the Spanish government has demonstrated its willingness to override public opinion in order to secure its own base. The 15M and Occupy movements of 2011-12 are long over but the core of popular left-wing sentiment in Spain is still deeply suspicious of representative democracy. Activists across the country share the sense that Spain is being dragged back to dictatorship times – a phrase that I hear repeated until it becomes a refrain – and not just over moral questions of women’s sexuality.

“It’s a big scandal,” said Ana Miranda Paz, a former MEP for Galicia and member of the Gender Equality Committee for the European Parliament. “The PP is using the next European campaign to get the votes of the most conservative part of Spanish society. The Rajoy goverment wants to bring us back to dictatorship, reducing equality, cutting the budget to improve education and sexual rights, cutting social rights and the public health system."

The protests against the new law have spread far beyond the feminist community, and men, too, have been on the streets from the start. “The public response has been massive,” said Perez. “There is common opposition to the law from all the sectors: doctors, lawyers, judges, educators, housewives, politicians, labourers. It is really thrilling and motivating to witness such a shared resistance to a so-called gender issue.”

Right now, as I’m writing this piece, it’s International Women’s Day, and tens thousands of men and women in Spain and across the continent are marching against the Rajoy government’s determination to restrict women’s reproductive rights in the face of popular resistance.

“Me myself, I will be doing what is needed,” said Perez. “I will go to the protest and demonstrate that millions of men and women are against this retrogressive law. And on the next day, I will keep fighting for our rights with my dear fellow women and we will keep doing it day after day until we overthrow this law.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation