MADRID (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Tuesday scrapped proposed changes in the abortion law that would have made Spain one of the most difficult countries in Europe in which to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, prompting the justice minister to resign.
The bill had proposed allowing abortion only in the case of rape or if the pregnancy posed a serious health risk to the mother. It had deeply divided the center-right People's Party (PP) as well as being unpopular with the electorate.
"As president of the government, I have taken the most sensible decision," Rajoy told reporters in Madrid.
Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, architect of the proposed reform, resigned. The former mayor of Madrid said he would step down from politics.
Rajoy said the subject of abortion stirred up great differences of opinion and the government had done all it could to reach consensus. Opposition politicians welcomed the move.
"We are celebrating this withdrawal," said Carmen Monton of the opposition Socialists. "It was about time Rajoy realized he cannot meddle with women's freedom."
Rajoy said the government would instead look to modify existing law so that young women of 16 and 17 could not terminate a pregnancy without their parents' consent. The government would take measures to support families by the end of the year, he said, without elaborating.
The ruling PP had promised abortion reform in its 2011 campaign, but the bill announced last year angered women's groups and led to huge street protests and complaints from leading doctors.
Polls showed most Spaniards rejected it.
The PP has an absolute majority in parliament, allowing it to pass laws without the support of other parties, but this proposed reform had stirred dissent amongst its own members.
"We will continue to look for ways to reach the widest consensus," said Rajoy. "We cannot have a law that will change within the first 30 seconds of a new government entering power."
Political analysts said the draft law had likely been dropped because it was divisive within the PP rather than an attempt to win votes from the center of the political spectrum, as the party could lose votes from the right as a consequence.
Anti-abortion activist group 'Right to Life' said it would start a campaign to stop Spaniards voting for Rajoy. Thousands of Spaniards had marched on Sunday urging Rajoy to comply with his election promise to restrict abortion.
"We find ourselves with a prime minister who has betrayed his core supporters," said Gador Joya, spokeswoman for the group. "Mr. Rajoy has shown he is not to be trusted because he does not have principles."
The previous Socialist government changed the abortion law in 2010, allowing women to terminate unwanted pregnancies on demand within 14 weeks, or up to 22 weeks in cases of severe abnormalities, putting Spain in line with most of Western Europe.
Abortion was first decriminalized in Spain in 1985 in the cases of malformed fetuses, rape or potential mental or physical damage to the mother.
Most European countries offer abortion on request, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with 88 percent allowing the termination of pregnancies if the fetus is thought to be impaired or in cases of rape or incest.
Editing by Angus MacSwan and Janet Lawrence