updated 3/17/2009 4:09:30 PM ET 2009-03-17T20:09:30

Spanish government plans to ease restrictions on abortion have triggered a new dispute with the Roman Catholic Church, with the clergy launching a campaign suggesting animals are better protected than unborn babies.

"We want to speak for those that have no voice as yet," Spanish Bishops Conference spokesman Jose Antonio Martinez Camino told Spanish National Radio on Tuesday, a day after launching the drive.

The campaign features billboards showing a toddler beside an Iberian lynx, one of the most highly protected species in Spain. A slogan says, "What about me? Protect My Life!"

It comes two weeks after the Socialist government revealed plans to reform the 1985 abortion law, including allowing the practice on demand up to 14 weeks.

The government plans to approve the reform by year's end. Its also includes allowing abortion up to 22 weeks if a doctor certifies a serious threat to the health of the mother or fetal malformation.

Beyond 22 weeks, it would be allowed only when doctors detect fetal malformation they deem incompatible with life.

The current law allows abortion up to 12 weeks in cases of rape and 22 weeks in cases of fetal malformation. It also allows abortion at any stage if a doctor certifies a woman's physical or mental health would be at risk if the pregnancy proceeded.

Right to life
Coinciding with the church protest, hundreds of scientists and researchers issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the government's plans and supporting for the right to life.

"Abortion, being an attack on life in the first weeks of development, is nobody's right," said Dr. Monica Lopez Barahona, one of the signatories and director of Vidacord, a biomedical company that stores stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

Since 2004, the Socialists have frequently angered the church and conservatives by enacting social reforms such as gay marriage and fast-track divorce.

The party responded immediately Tuesday with parliamentary spokesman Jose Antonio Alonso labeling the church campaign as "extremist and demagogic."

Health Minister Bernat Soria said, "Right now the debate is not about yes or no to abortion. Spain had that debate 20 years ago. It's about adapting our legislation to be in line with those European countries we continually say we want to be like."

Spain is predominantly Roman Catholic, but in recent years the church has lost much of its influence.

Camino said the campaign is running March 16-30 with 1,300 billboards in 37 cities. Some 30,000 posters will be distributed in parishes nationwide.

There have been no immediate calls for street demonstrations, although the church and opposition Popular Party have staged several major anti-abortion and anti-government demonstrations in the recent years.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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