Lawmakers voted to ease Spain's abortion law Thursday, approving a bill to allow the procedure without restrictions up to 14 weeks. The change would bring this traditionally Roman Catholic country in line with its more secular neighbors in northern Europe.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where passage is expected some time early next year.
Abortion reform was the last major pending issue in a bold reform agenda undertaken by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist who took power in 2004.
Under Zapatero, Spain has also legalized gay marriage and made it easier for Spaniards to divorce in a drive that has infuriated conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church.
The vote in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies was 184-158 with one abstention.
Under the current law, which dates back to 1985, Spanish women could in theory go to jail for getting an abortion outside certain strict limits _ up to week 12 in case of rape and week 22 if the fetus is malformed.
But abortion is in effect widely available because women can assert mental distress as sole grounds for having an abortion, regardless of how late the pregnancy is. Most of the more than 100,000 abortions carried out each year in Spain were early-term ones that fell under this category.
The bill approved Thursday wipes away the threat of imprisonment and declares abortion to be a woman's right.
"We are legislating women's right to decide whether to be mothers," said Carmen Monton, the Socialists' spokeswoman on gender issues.
Conservative Popular Party spokesman Santiago Cervera insisted there was no clamor in Spanish society for changing the existing law and the government instigated it just to raise a stir and distract people's attention away from the country's economic recession.
Anti-abortion demonstrators wearing sandwich boards rallied outside the legislature during debate on the bill. One of the boards showed a picture of a child with Down syndrome asking Zapatero "why are you letting them kill me?"
The new bill would also also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to have abortions without parental consent, as is the case in other European countries such as Germany, Britain and France.
This clause proved to be among the bill's most controversial ones.
In the end, the ruling Socialist party agreed to amend it so that such minors must inform their parents or legal guardian if they plan to undergo an abortion _ although still with no need for their permission _ except if they can show that doing so would expose them to violence within their family, threats or coercion.
The Spanish Bishops' Conference warned last month that legislators who voted in favor of the bill would be sinning and no longer eligible to receive Communion. This was particularly touchy for parliamentary speaker Jose Bono, a Socialist who is a practicing Catholic. Bono responded saying "My conscience is clear."
In October, a rally against the reform bill drew hundreds of thousands of people to Madrid. This showed that for all the changes Zapatero has introduced, abortion remains sensitive in a country where most people call themselves Catholic, even if few churches are full on Sundays.
The new bill, besides allowing unrestricted abortion up to 14 weeks, would permit it up to 22 weeks if two doctors certify there is a serious threat to the health of the mother, or fetal malformation.
Beyond 22 weeks, it would be allowed only doctors certify fetal malformation deemed incompatible with life or the fetus were diagnosed with an extremely serious or incurable disease.