The new Scandinavia?

Article published on Jan. 2, 2006
community published
Article published on Jan. 2, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Since 1986, the Spanish and Portuguese societies have made dizzying social progress, far from conservatism and the weight of tradition.

Spain and Portugal in 1986: you would probably have had to have been very brave to openly declare yourself a homosexual; campaigns to promote the use of contraception among young people generated controversy; there were very few students in state schools who didn’t have religious education classes; divorce had only been legal in Spain for five years; and no one could predict that immigration would represent a challenge before the end of the 20th century.

The Catholic Church

Mausoleum constructed by Franco(Stock.xchng)After its omnipresence at all social levels during the dictatorial eras in both Spain and Portugal during the 20th century, the strong historic influence of the Catholic Church started to diminish with the arrival of democracy. Portugal has been a secular state since 1976; secularism that has spread progressively and resulted in the approval of a law in 2001 that confirms religious freedom and that set the way for the passing of other laws such as the prohibition of religious symbols in all public buildings, although not without protests from the Church and conservative parties.

In Spain, a country linked with Catholicism par excellence, churches are increasingly empty, even emptier than those of neighbouring European countries: 25% of the population goes to church at least once a week, a percentage that rises to 84% in Ireland, 45% in Italy, 27% in the UK and 21% in France. However, the Church is not about to give up its fight and there has been recent controversy over a new law that tries to reduce the role of religion in state education, provoking a demonstration of more than a million conservatives in November in Madrid.

Abortion and cloning

Abortion boat off the coast of Portugal (Wikipedia)Portugal and Spain share very similar legislation on abortion; it is only permitted in a few cases, one of them being that the mother risks suffering physical or psychological damage during the pregnancy, but whilst in Spain the courts widely interpret the law so that in practice abortion is available to all who need it, in Portugal, according to official figures, between 20,000 and 40,000 backstreet abortions are carried out each year. After various unsuccessful attempts to legalise abortion, Jose Socrates’ Portuguese government still plan to hold a referendum on the issue, although it has been put off twice.

Scientist Bernat Soria and stem cell research (Junta de Andalucía)In both countries, reproductive cloning is prohibited, but whilst in Portugal there is no legislation on stem cell research, in Spain they have been considering the possibility since 2003. Indeed, its Law on Assisted Reproduction of May 2005 has placed Spain in the group of countries with the most advanced legislation with regard to stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.


Article 13 of the Portuguese constitution states that no one can be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. But even though the country has come a long way in the last 20 years, there is still some discrimination towards the gay community. Gay couples can’t marry or adopt, although there is civil partnership legislation. The Portuguese penal code awards greater sentences for homosexual abuse of a minor than for heterosexual abuse, as well as using discriminatory expressions such as homosexual “rape” compared to “sexual abuse” when the offence is committed by a heterosexual.

Gay demonstration in 2005, MadridIn April 2005, Spain became the third country in the world to legalise marriage between couples of the same sex, and the first to give them the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt. This measure had the backing of 66% of the population, a huge change if one bears in mind that barely 30 years ago homosexuals could be jailed for just being gay.


In 1981, only 54,000 foreigners were resident in Portugal. Numbers have risen sharply to 100,000 in 1991 and more than 350,000 in 2001, with immigrants mostly from the Portuguese ex-colonies and Eastern Europe. Portugal is now the fourth fastest-growing EU country in terms of immigration.

Likewise, in 1986, foreigners in Spain didn’t even represent 1% of the population, but during the last few years it has become the main recipient of immigrants in the EU. This means that one in every three immigrants that chose the EU as their destination during 2004 and 2005 have settled in Spain. These new Spaniards now represent 8.4% of the population and have managed to resolve Spain’s low birth rate problem. The country has gone from nearly 40 million residents in 2000 to more than 44 million at the end of 2005.