Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Madrid Saturday to condemn plans by Spain's socialist government to liberalise abortion laws in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.
In warm autumnal sunshine, protesters staged an early evening march across the city behind a huge banner reading "Every Life Matters" to protest the plan, which would allow girls of 16 to undergo abortions without their parents' consent.
The crowd, which included many families and people of all ages, rallied in the central Plaza de Independencia, where pop music blared over loudspeakers and 300 white helium balloons were released.
"The presence of each of you here today in this demonstration is a commitment to the fight for life," Benigno Blanco, the head of the Forum for the Family, one of the chief organisers, told the crowd.
"Those of you who govern us must listen to the voice from the streets," he said.
A spokesman for another of the organisers, HazteOir (Make Yourself Heard), said 1.5 million people attended the march and rally, while the Madrid regional government estimated the crowd at 1.2 million.
Police sources quoted by Spanish media however put the figure at 250,000.
Organisers said 600 buses and several planes were used to bring the supporters of 42 Spanish anti-abortion and Catholic associations to the capital for the protest, which is also backed by the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) and the Roman Catholic Church.
The protesters, who included former PP prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, carried red and white banners or flags saying "For Life, Women and Motherhood", "Women Against Abortion" and "Madrid 2009, Capital of Life."
"This new law is a barbarity. In this country, they protect animals more than human beings," said Jose Carlos Felicidad, 67, a retired naval technician who came to the capital from the southern town of Algeciras with his wife and three grown-up children.
"The government takes no notice of public opinion," said Alberto, a 17-year-old student who came to Madrid for the rally by bus from the northern city of Santander. "It must justify laws that are against human life."
Equality Minister Bibiana Aido, who was behind the reforms, voiced her "total respect" for the protesters but said "nobody has a monopoly on morality.
"No woman can be penalised for taking such a difficult decision as that of abortion," she said.
The proposed abortion law, approved by the cabinet last month, would allow the procedure on demand for women of 16 and over up to the 14th week of pregnancy, and up to 22 weeks if there was a risk to the mother's health or if the foetus was deformed.
Women could also undergo the procedure after 22 weeks if the foetus had a serious or incurable illness.
Spain decriminalised abortion in 1985, a decade after the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, but only for certain cases: up to 12 weeks of pregnancy after a rape; up to 22 weeks in the case of malformation of the foetus; and at any point if the pregnancy represents a threat to the physical or mental health of the woman.
The majority of abortions in Spain currently take place in private clinics and are justified on the grounds that the pregnancy posed a "psychological risk" for the health of the woman.
The proposed new legislation, which is based on laws in place in most other EU countries, is to be debated in parliament in November.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has passed a series of sweeping liberal social reforms since coming to power in 2004 that have angered the Roman Catholic Church, including measures to legalise gay marriage, allow for fast-track divorces and give increased rights to transsexuals.
An opinion poll published in Friday's ABC newspaper said 42 percent of Spaniards believed there was no overwhelming popular support for the abortion reforms, compared to 38 percent who believed there was.
A poll released earlier this month in the centrist Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia said a narrow majority of Spaniards opposed the reforms.