Access to abortion in Spain is sacrosanct. The procedures are free — covered by the public national health care system — and allowed up until the 14th week of pregnancy for any reason; until the 22nd week with a doctor’s note; and sometimes after 22 weeks if there are issues with either the fetus’ or the mother’s health.
Since abortion become legal in 1985, right-wing politicians have periodically made feeble attempts to limit or ban access to it. Each time it happens, though, the action is met with strong pushback from the public.
But this past January, shortly before the country went into a three-month lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Spanish government banned a nonprofit organization, Women on Web, which for 15 years has offered medically approved information about abortions in 22 different languages, along with contraceptives and abortion pills.
The organization’s website has two main parts. The “I had an abortion” section aims to normalize or destigmatize abortions through the real-life stories of those who have had them. The second, and arguably most important, part is the “I need an abortion” section. Women on Web will mail the pills for a medical abortion to anyone who needs them and provides the needed medical consultation online with a strong emphasis on protecting users’ privacy.
Leticia Zenevich, a human rights lawyer representing Women on Web, says issues with censorship are not new. What is new is that Spain is the first country in Europe to block the site and one of the few countries to block Women on Web that also deems abortion a protected right.
The Spanish government has now joined the ranks of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea, Iran, Poland, Indonesia and Brazil in forcibly blocking access to a website that, according to its founders, empowers women to make their own health care choices.
There are many reasons someone might choose to go through a site like Women on Web, and over the last 15 years, more than half a million people have used the service. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 90 million women (5% of the global population) live in a country where abortion is outright banned, no matter the circumstances. Another 359 million (22% of the global population) live in a country where abortions are only allowed if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. Even in countries where abortion is legal, there are numerous other barriers that could prevent someone from going to their doctor such as distance or wanting to protect their privacy. No matter the reason, Zenevich says women must have the option to choose what is right for them.
According to Zenevich, Women on Web didn’t receive any warnings that their site would be blocked. They only noticed something was wrong after Spain went into quarantine in March when they saw the number of users there decrease by 63% compared to the same month last year. At the same time, neighboring countries like France and Italy were seeing a notable increase in users as they, too, faced lockdowns from the coronavirus pandemic.
Women on Web partnered with a local cyberactivist who confirmed the site was down in Spain.
“We didn’t know who blocked us. We had to go to the UN special procedures to pressure them to know what was going on because there was no due process of law. We were just blocked overnight.”
“We didn’t know who blocked us,” Zenevich said. “We had to go to the UN special procedures to pressure them to know what was going on because there was no due process of law. We were just blocked overnight.”
Zenevich says they had no idea if the censorship was from private actors, internet service providers, or the government.
Silvia Aldavert, a coordinator at the Association for Reproductive and Sexual Rights in Barcelona, says this wasn’t a good move on the Spanish government’s part.
“Censoring this website isn’t very strategic, it’s meaningless,” Aldavert said. “And also very symbolic because you are censoring a website of an organization that has had a very important history.”
Especially, she adds, because there are still dozens of other websites, including a few mirror sites of Women on Web, where you can still easily buy the same drugs.
In an email to The World, a press person for Spain’s Health Ministry said that the site was blocked because Women on Web provides medication that is not authorized in Spain without a prescription. They say taking these pills without a doctor present is dangerous and not justifiable in a country where, they claim, there are no legal barriers to abortion.
Yet the two medications that Women on Web mails out — Mifepristone and Misoprostol — are the same drugs used in Spain for medical abortions.
Aldavert says there are in fact many barriers for women accessing abortion in Spain — for example, undocumented women don’t have access to the public health care system, and teenagers under 18 must have parental permission. But legal barriers are just the tip of the iceberg. Some women might need to keep it secret from their family or from an abusive partner, which was exacerbated during the nationwide lockdown. Or, they might face mobility or travel obstacles like having to travel long distances, not having a car or not being able to afford or access public transportation.
A study conducted by the World Health Organization found that between 2010 and 2014, roughly half of the 55.7 million abortions that took place were considered unsafe. While WHO classifies medical abortions without supervision to be unsafe, they said that if women access the pills through a telemedicine service like Women on Web, it is classified as a safe abortion.
“As an institution, your obligation is to give information to women, never to censor. The problem is not that sites like this exist, but rather that women aren’t informed about their basic rights surrounding abortions.”
“As an institution, your obligation is to give information to women, never to censor,” Aldavert said. “The problem is not that sites like this exist, but rather that women aren’t informed about their basic rights surrounding abortions.”
Aldavert says that at the Association for Reproductive and Sexual Rights, they have to clear up misconceptions or false information about abortions with their patients every day.
“It shows that this information isn’t reaching many women,” Aldavert said. “If the government really wanted to stop women from using these kinds of sites, they would create a comprehensive campaign to educate the public.”
There has never been that kind of educational campaign from the Spanish or regional governments, Aldavert says.
While this can be a problem for anyone facing an unwanted pregnancy, it is particularly challenging for migrants, those who don’t speak the language or those who don’t understand or have access to the country’s health care system. Zenevich says that in 2019, Women on Web received requests in 22 different languages in Spain alone.
Aldavert says that she doesn’t believe this was an intentional move to suppress abortion rights, but rather a political response to local news outlets warning about the online sale of abortion pills. But, she says, this is part of a bigger trend all over Europe and the United States where abortion rights are slowly being chipped away by blocking sites or introducing clauses like that of “conscientious objectors,” doctors who deny abortion services based on moral, religious or personal grounds. This can be particularly tricky as some public hospitals in Spain operate in partnership with the Catholic Church.
“If the government really wanted to keep women from ordering pills online, they should fill the gaps and ensure no one in Spain would even be in a situation where they need to order a pill online,” Aldavert said.