A placard reading “A mother by choice” at a pro-choice protest in Spain. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.