Spain is poised to pass one of the toughest abortion laws in Europe. Abortion has been legal in Spain for nearly 30 years. In 2010, the then-socialist government relaxed abortion rules, making it even more accessible. But now a conservative government is in power and plans to reverse that, banning abortion altogether, except in cases of rape or threats to the mother's health.

The move has sparked protests across Spain and its Spanish consulates here in the United States and around the world. From Madrid, Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Born in a tiny village south of Madrid, Esperanza Puente came to work in the big city fresh out of high school. It was the late 1980s. Spain was reveling in newfound freedoms after its military dictator died and democracy took hold.

ESPERANZA PUENTE: (Through interpreter) The end of the 1980s was a wild time in Madrid - alcohol, drugs, nightlife, sex without commitment. When I arrived in Madrid from a small village, I ate it up, like it was the end of the world. You're young. You've got to live your life and you can do what you want. But I ended up pregnant.

FRAYER: And unwed. Puente couldn't bear to tell her conservative Catholic family back in her village and Spain had just legalized abortion in 1985.

PUENTE: (Through interpreter) In my case, I didn't want to get married. I had this new option of abortion, which seemed easy and painless. You could get one in 24 hours and I felt like I didn't have any other alternative.

FRAYER: Puente now volunteers with an anti-abortion group. She's changed her mind and so has Spain's government. It's amending Spanish law to create one of the toughest abortion laws in Europe, a near-total ban, except in cases of rape or threats to the mother's health. Serious birth defects will no longer be grounds for terminating a pregnancy.

There's been a big backlash by abortion rights advocates.


FRAYER: Thousands of protesters march up and down Madrid's wide avenues every weekend. Many accuse the government of cowing to the Catholic Church.


FRAYER: Abortion is sacred, topless women chanted, surrounding a Catholic cardinal on his way into church a couple weeks ago. They pelted him with lace panties in one of the more colorful protests that have become a fixture here in recent months. Polls show that more than 80 percent of Spaniards want abortion to remain legal and accessible like in most of Europe.

Luis Enrique Sanchez, president of Spain's Planned Parenthood Federation, says the new law will turn the clocks back to the 1970s, when Spanish women went abroad for abortions.

LUIS ENRIQUE SANCHEZ: (Through interpreter) Many women will be packing their suitcases once again for weekend flights to France and England. This is a situation we cannot endure. It will do so much damage to the Spanish population.

FRAYER: Ruling conservatives hold and absolute majority in Spain's parliament, enough to push this abortion ban through. They're moving to the right, trying to keep members from defecting to a new far-right political party similar to the Tea Party in the U.S. But they also face another revolt from the center, led by this woman.

CELIA VILLALOBOS: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: Celia Villalobos is the feisty deputy speaker of Spain's parliament, a conservative and an abortion-rights advocate. She's urging fellow conservatives to break with the party leadership and vote their conscience on abortion.

VILLALOBOS: (Through interpreter) Sure, there's a far-right wing of the party that's much more conservative, and it's pressuring the leadership. But what's happened is, it's not in 1985 anymore. We're in 2014, and things have changed.

FRAYER: In the intervening years, most of Europe legalized abortion. In 40 years, Spain has changed from a Catholic dictatorship to one of the first European nations to legalize gay marriage. For some Spaniards, especially older conservatives, many of whom happen to sit in parliament, that change has been too fast, and bewildering, says Fernando Gortazar, with the anti-abortion Family Forum.

FERNANDO GORTAZAR: Many things were good, of course, and there was also some sort of confusion. Sometimes when you introduce a big change, and people get this sudden and a bit crazy freedom of the last years, maybe that some of the things that should never change are confused with what is real progress.

FRAYER: And that's the real debate taking place in Spain now, whether the freedoms that came with democracy here represent true progress or a breakdown of traditional Spanish values. Despite fierce arguments on both sides, Spain's parliament will almost certainly choose to severely restrict abortion when it comes up for a vote in the coming weeks. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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