Pro-abortion rally in Madrid over planned curbs in mainly Catholic Spain

MADRID (AFP) - Thousands of pro-choice campaigners converged on the Spanish capital Saturday to voice their opposition to a government plan to restrict access to abortion in the mainly Catholic country.

Demonstrators shouting slogans and carrying banners that read "it is my right, it is my life" crowded around a Madrid station to greet a "freedom train" of protesters from northern Spain.

Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government announced on December 20 it would roll back a 2010 law that allows women to opt freely for abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The new law, yet to pass parliament where the ruling People's Party enjoys an absolute majority, would allow abortion only in cases of rape or a threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother.

The move has outraged pro-choice campaigners, who say the new legislation would roll back the decades in Spain, returning to conditions similar to those of a more restrictive 1985 law.

"I would never have imagined we would find ourselves back here, fighting for something we thought we had won," said 57-year-old protestor Maria Pilar Sanchez. "We don't want to turn the clock back 40 years. Having an abortion used to be a crime in Spain. We don't want to return to that."

Marisa Vallero, 55, recalled how she had to fly to London 35 years ago. "We were treated like terrorists," she said. The "freedom train" left Gijon in northern Spain on Friday with around 100 pro-choice campaigners on board. Supporting protests were also planned in Paris and London.

The aim is "to tell conservative (Justice) Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon that we don't want him to change the law," said Begona Pinero, whose feminist group came up with the idea for the journey. "We the women are free and we are capable of deciding when we want to become a mother," she told AFP.

Her group will join up with thousands more protesters from elsewhere in Spain but also from other countries including France, to protest in front of parliament.

The new bill would toughen the conditions for aborting in cases of malformation of the foetus, which the current law authorises freely up to 22 weeks.

It would also oblige girls aged under 18 to get their parents' consent to have abortions.

Hundreds of people protested in Brussels on Wednesday against the planned Spanish law change and protests are also expected elsewhere in Europe on Saturday.

Pro-choice adherents will march on the Spanish embassy in Paris, while a demonstration is also planned in London.

French Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine said last week the Spanish plan to tighten abortion laws would "take women back to the Stone Age" and called for action to ensure it was rejected.

French lawmakers last month approved a controversial abortion bill that scraps a requirement for women to prove they are in distress to legally terminate a pregnancy.

In Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government has repeatedly postponed the abortion reform, reportedly struggled with internal dissent, after promising in its 2011 election campaign to tighten the rules.

The delay has drawn cries of impatience from the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

Last April, the head of Spain's Catholic Church, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, said the 2010 law had "led to a rise in the number of abortions to terrifying levels".

The national health ministry said about 118,000 abortions were carried out in Spain in 2011, up from 113,000 the previous year.

Campaigners dispute the effect of the legal changes on abortion numbers.