MADRID — The Spanish government on Tuesday approved a draft law that would make Spain the first European country to grant women days off work because of menstrual pain, as well as extend access to abortion.
Under the new law, women would have the right to time off if a doctor diagnoses them with severe menstrual pain. The cost would be covered by the state. Among other measures to help women during their menstruation, Spain’s left-wing government also decided that schools should provide sanitary pads to students who request them.
The regulatory changes to assist women during menstruation are part of a broader legal overhaul that the Socialist-led government wants Parliament to approve with the goal of consolidating women’s right to abortion. The draft law extends access to abortion for minors, allowing the procedure from the age of 16 without the consent of a parent or guardian, as had been required. It would also remove a previous rule that forced a woman to confirm her choice three days after initially asking for an abortion.
Spain’s minister of equality, Irene Montero, who is pushing for the law, defended it as the necessary response to decades-long demands lodged by feminist associations, to enhance women’s health rights. “This is a law that shows what Spain is and what is the feminist movement in Spain,” Ms. Montero said on the breakfast show of Spain’s national television broadcaster. “We will be the first country of Europe that talks about menstruation health as a health standard and we eliminate this stigma, shame and guilt, as well as this loneliness that women often have go through during their period.”
The government’s plan comes amid a longstanding ideological battle in Spain over abortion. Right-wing opposition parties, led by the Popular Party and with the backing of the Catholic Church, have appealed to the Constitutional Court to seek an annulment of Spain’s most recent abortion law, which was approved in 2010 under a previous Socialist government. The 2010 law established a deadline of 14 weeks of pregnancy for a woman to seek an abortion, which can be extended to 22 weeks if there is a serious risk of fetal deformities.
In recent weeks, some right-wing lawmakers have latched onto a leaked document suggesting that the Supreme Court of the United States would overturn the right to abortion in America, to reinforce their claim that a similar legal U-turn was needed in Spain. The debate in the United States was prompted by the publication this month of a draft court opinion concerning Roe v. Wade, the ruling that enshrined the right to abortion in the United States almost 50 years ago.
In Spain, abortion was decriminalized in 1985 by the first Socialist government that came into office after Spain’s return to democracy, but the issue has since remained a political hot potato, subject to legal changes each time a different administration has taken office. A decade ago, a conservative government sought to push through legal changes that would have limited significantly the circumstances under which abortion was allowed. After mass street protests, the project was dropped, forcing the resignation of the justice minister who had pushed for it.
The draft law aims to guarantee access to abortion in public hospitals in a country where many doctors refuse to perform them, forcing women to go to private clinics or travel to other places. The draft law would notably force regional administrations to set up a registry of doctors who refuse to carry out an abortion.
The draft law puts the spotlight on dysmenorrhea, the severe pain that women can suffer during menstruation and that can leave them too debilitated to work. But the medical profession in Spain has also been divided over whether treating menstruation problems required a specific law.
“I really don’t understand why we need this new law when there are now so many options available for most women to avoid suffering the kind of debilitating pain that could make it impossible for them to work,” said Hortensia García Briz, a gynecologist in Madrid. “I think that the feminist movement in this country has been pushing things to the extreme and out of context, which is not actually helpful to women,” she added. “I believe that the aim should be precisely to demystify a woman’s period as something that needs to be painful, and make it clear instead that gynecology has already designed many products to make it comfortable.”
Only a few countries worldwide — most of them in Asia — have approved laws that cater to women who suffer debilitating menstrual pain. In 1947, Japan became the first country to grant women menstrual leave, but usage of that has declined over recent decades, a fall that has largely been attributed to social pressures on women to show up for work. Lawmakers in Italy debated legislation to grant women menstrual leave, but the Italian Parliament ended up rejecting the idea in 2017.
Faride Ojeda, a gynecologist in a private hospital in Madrid, said that the only positive aspect of the government’s menstruation law was that it would guarantee women’s pay while on work leave, but “as a feminist as well as gynecologist, I don’t want a law that presents the period as an illness and might even convince more men not to employ more women and hence reduce further our opportunities in the workplace.”
In Madrid, government officials said on Tuesday that they hoped that the law could come into force before late next year, when Spain is set to hold its next national elections. But the draft law faces an arduous path before that, and could also undergo several amendments during its review by both houses of Parliament.
Even before Tuesday’s presentation, the details of the draft law sparked tensions within the coalition government, including over its estimated cost. Ms. Montero, the equality minister, failed to push through a proposal to remove value-added tax on the sale of sanitary pads and other related products.