The Case of Dr Carlos Morín, Barcelona, Spain – “Hasta el final”

23/06/2016 § Leave a comment

The history of the persecution of Dr Carlos Morín, former director of the Ginemedex clinic in Barcelona, Spain, the staff of his clinic and the thousands of women who had abortions there began in Britain in 2004 and reached its climax, at least for the moment, on 17 June 2016, in the Regional Court of Barcelona, where during a re-trial ordered by the Supreme Court, three years after he and all his staff had been acquitted of all charges against them, Dr Morín was found guilty of having carried out 11 illegal abortions and a psychiatrist from the clinic, Dr Pascual Javier Ramón, was found guilty of signing the forms authorising the abortions.

What happened in between is the stuff of nightmares. The case was dragged through the justice system and the media for more than ten years by anti-abortion groups, who succeeded in having all Dr Morín’s clinics closed six years before he was even tried in court, and everyone who had been working in the clinics and the patients were investigated. Not only Dr Morín and his wife, who worked with him, but also many members of their staff were finally put on trial in 2012. In the interim, he was unable to practise his profession as a doctor and suffered from both public condemnation and bankruptcy, due to huge legal costs throughout the whole process.

The story began in Britain on 10 October 2004, when the Sunday Telegraph ran a story, based on “undercover” work[1] by a woman journalist pretending to be pregnant, that women beyond the legal time limit for abortion in England and Wales were being helped by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) to obtain abortions in Dr Morín’s clinic in Spain. Following an investigation by the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health, Bpas were criticised for the way the undercover call was handled, but were exonerated of any wrongdoing.

Moreover, according to the Chief Medical Officer’s report, the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia reported on 14 October 2004 that the Health Department of Catalunya had come to the conclusion that the Barcelona clinic “attends patients in a correct and legal manner”. The Catalunyan Department added that they had carried out an inspection which confirmed that the clinic concerned had provided services within the terms defined by the regulatory and legal system.

The British Chief Medical Officer’s report also stated: “My investigation has shown that it can be difficult for women to access late abortion services.” (Chief Medical Officer report, 2005)

Thus, no wrongdoing was found in either Britain or Spain. The situation did not end there, however. It was advanced further following an undercover visit to the Ginemedex clinic by a Danish public television crew, which was aired on TV in 2006 in Denmark, France and the Netherlands. That led to an investigation of a clinic in the Netherlands who, like Bpas, sometimes referred women with late second trimester abortions (25-28 weeks) and rarely a third trimester abortion who were beyond the legal time limit in their countries to the Ginemedex clinic. The ultra-religious group E-Cristians used the Danish TV show to call for an investigation of whether the Ginemedex clinic was doing abortions outside the law.

Under the law in Spain until 2010, abortion was legal up to 12 weeks if the pregnancy resulted from rape, up to 22 weeks in cases of severe fetal anomaly, and with no time limit if it was necessary to avoid a grave danger to the life  or the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. Throughout this period, the Ginemedex clinic followed the guidelines for assessing the women who came to them in line with legal protocols. The woman was seen by a psychiatrist who also authorised that the abortion was legal and on that basis, the staff carried out the abortions.

According to Anne-Marie Rey, an abortion rights activist in Switzerland since 1971, who has closely followed the case from the beginning:

“Up to 2007, the Ginemedex clinic was a last resort for women who sought an abortion in advanced stages of pregnancy. Women were sent to Barcelona from many countries, when it was not possible to help them at home. Personally I gave his address to several women from Switzerland and they were always treated with respect and empathy. Yes, Dr Morín did interpret the Spanish abortion law liberally. But, in fact, he only applied the World Health Organization definition of “health” as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. And he applied this interpretation also in the case of desperate women who needed an abortion late in pregnancy, after 24 weeks gestation.”

As has been shown all over Europe, women requesting an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy are rare. In Britain, for example, in 2002, of the 175,932 abortions that took place, only 117 were after 24 weeks of pregnancy, that is, 0.06% of the total. (Chief Medical Officer report, 2005) This number and proportion are not unusual. The Chief Medical Officer’s report stated that in 2003, of all the patients seen within the 26 abortion clinics in Catalunya, only 812 patients were foreign (of whom only 14 were from the UK). 98.9% of the abortions on foreigners were at less than 22 weeks of pregnancy. In 3 cases it was in the 24th week and in 5 cases in the 26th week. (Chief Medical Officer’s report, 2005)

What came next, according to an article by the anti-abortion group Religion en Libertad, with information they say came from E-Cristians, would not have taken place without; 1) foreign media involvement, 2) follow-up by anti-abortion groups who kept written records and spent money, 3) the written testimony of a woman who attended the Ginemedex clinic, who was given protected witness status, and 4) a judge and prosecutor who decided to pursue the case “hasta el final” (up to the very end).

In 2007, as part of what became a long investigation, Dr Morín was charged with carrying out “illegal abortions”. He was jailed for two months until a judge ruled that he could be released pending trial, his four Ginemedex clinics were closed, and the clinics’ records, including the personal records of several thousand women, were confiscated for examination. The investigation, including interviews with all the staff and many patients, took six years. In September 2012, the case opened in the Audiencia de Barcelona, a regional court.

Between 2007 and 2012, when the case was finally heard, many other clinics in Spain were also affected. According to one report,[2] there were increased political inspections and administrative and judicial harassment for all abortion clinics and the women patients they cared for, and there was more radical anti-choice activity. Complaints were laid against other abortion providers in registered clinics. One clinic especially suffered “virulent persecution by both anti-abortion groups and by the government itself” for a time, until the situation was clarified.

Some 115 charges of illegal abortion were laid against 12 people, including Dr Morín, his wife (who helped to run his clinics), the psychiatrist Dr Pascual Javier Ramón, and 9 other physicians and nurses. There were hundreds of statements submitted by the prosecution and thousands of pages of judicial and police reports.

According to Religion en Libertad, up to 2012 when the case came to court, E-Cristians had spent 55,000 Euros, including for “extra-judicial actions” and the involvement of lawyers who “knew the terrain” and another 39,000 Euros for other costs (Defiende usted la vida? 2012) [3]

The case concluded with a verdict on 31 January 2013. The verdict was the acquittal of every person charged and on every charge, as reported in El País on 1 February 2013. The court accepted that the abortions were performed “with the consent and at the express request of pregnant women” despite some administrative irregularities. However, both the Prosecutor in the case and the anti-abortion groups who had accused Dr Morín and his staff (E-Cristians, Spanish Alternative, Thomas More Foundation and the College of Physicians of Barcelona) did not accept the verdict and appealed to the Supreme Court. Nine months later, the Supreme Court criticised the Regional Court’s judgement and ordered a re-trial in the Regional Court with different judges. They gave two reasons: first, they argued that the Danish television programme should have been taken in evidence, which the Regional Court had decided against doing. Second, they said that because Dr Morín exercised his right not to testify, the judges did not allow the prosecutor to read out the questions they had prepared to ask him. The Supreme Court thought, however, that these had to be made public and answered, in order to determine, as claimed by the Prosecutor, whether there were contradictions between the pre-trial and the trial evidence.

In March 2015, Dr Morín appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Within less than two months, the Court replied that they would not consider the case because the request did not comply with the requisites of admissibility of articles 34 and 35 of the Convention. (CEDH-Lesp11.00R, MMI/MCM/agz, Demanda No.13465/15, letter dated 30 April 2015) The presumption is that he had not exhausted his right of appeal to the very top of the Spanish court system.

The re-trial took place in the Regional Court of Barcelona in January-February 2016. This time, both Dr Morín and Dr Ramón were found guilty and sentenced – not to 390 years or 278 years in prison as the Prosecutor had asked for originally, but to 18 months in prison – and not for over 100 illegal abortions but for 11 illegal abortions. All the other defendants in the case were again acquitted. One could be forgiven for asking whether this new judgement was in fact safe, let alone just.

The final irony, however, is that according to El País of 17 June 2016, the sentence is not firm and can actually be appealed, once again, to the Supreme Court. [4] Thus, it would appear that in Spain, if ultra-religious, anti-abortion NGOs, who have no legal standing, don’t like the verdict of a court of law, the defendants can be tried again in the same court on the same charges by different judges, with different verdicts and opinions on what constitutes evidence, for as long as it pleases the courts to take, and the European Court of Human Rights is prevented by its own rules from considering whether the human rights of the defendants have been and continue to be violated.

A note of thanks to Carlos Morín – I join with Anne-Marie Rey who said on 20 June upon hearing of the verdict: “This latest sentence is a scandal. Thank you, Dr Morín, and all your staff, for all you did for those women! And for your standing up for the right of women to decide for themselves in difficult life situations. I do hope some help is still possible for Dr Morín in return.”

Acknowledgement Thanks to Anne-Marie Rey for providing a wide range of documentation about this history over several years and for her help in preparing this article. Any errors are the author’s alone.

References

An Investigation into the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) Response to Requests for Late Abortions. A report by the Chief Medical Officer. Department of Health, September 2005.

Defiende usted la vida? El caso Morín ouede cambiar la historia del abortion…pero requiere dinero. http://www.religionenlibertad.com/articulo_imprimir.asp?idarticulo=22994. 5 June 2012.

Condenado por abortos ilegales un médico absuelto hace tres años, El País, 17 June 2016.

Visit the website of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, where this article was first published on 22 June, for the Annex that lists the 34 articles from El País covering this history from 2006 to 2016. The titles and first lines are in Spanish, translated by me, with the help of SDL Free Translation, into English. The articles are in Spanish.

Footnotes

[1] Some might call it attempted entrapment.

[2] Anonymous, personal communication, October 2011.

[3] This is a direct translation from the Spanish.

[4] “La sentencia tampoco es firme y puede ser recurrida, de nuevo, ante el Tribunal Supremo.”

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