The forthcoming trial of 11 working-class women on abortion charges has provoked a strong women's response and sharply divided-Spanish society.

Over the weekend, more than 1,000 women, many of them well-known, released a statement declaring that they had abortions in the past and calling for reform of the country's stringent abortion legislation. Subsequent demonstrations in Madrid and other cities were violently broken up by riot police.

The center of the issue is the trial beginning Friday of 11 women, now known as the "Bilbao 11." The prosecution is asking 60 years' imprisonment for a woman who allegedly conducted back-street abortions and six-month sentences for the defendants who allegedly had abortions between 1972 and 1976. s

Penalties for abortion have remained unchanged since the Franco regime, when legislation closely reflected Roman Catholic doctrine.

The major contention of women's groups is that thousands of well-to-do women are able to terminate their pregnancies abroad, particularly in France and Britain, while the under-priviledged are forced to seek back-street abortions in Spain and face prosecution if discovered.

The main defendant in the "Bilao 11" case is a 42-year-old woman who runs a bar in a working-class Bilbao neighborhood. She is charged with performing 10 abortions -- each charge carrying a six-year penalty -- she admits she aided desperate women who came to her seeking help.

The woman, who along with her co-defendants has not been named, has said the methods she employed were safe and that she charged a maximum of 3,000 pesetas ( $45) per abortion.

According to the defense lawyers, all but one of the women charged are married with three to four children. Their husbands earned around 11,000 pesetas ( $165) a month as unskilled laborers at the same time of the abortions. pThe unmarried defendant is the daughter of the bar owner. She also charged with helping her mother to practice abortions and faces a 55-year sentence. The prosecution is also demanding that the Bilbao 11 be suspended from practicing civil liberties -- the right to vote and to hold public office -- for an 11-year period.

Defense lawyers have said their case will concentrate on the system that penalizes women unable to travel abroad for abortion. They will argue that penalizes women unable to travel minate their pregnancies to bring up their other children.

Women's groups say there are more than 300,000 illegal abortions in Spain every year. Although the figure is desputed as an exaggeration, what is not open to doubt is the great number of women who visit abortion clinics abroad.

The weekend statement, signed by 1,357 Spanish women declaring that they, too, had undergone abortions, was modeled on a similar declaration in France, signed by author Simone de Beauvoir and actress Romy Scheider among others. It led to legislation that overhauled French abortion laws.

The names on the Spanish list included singer Massiel, a past winner of the Eurovision song contest; actress Amparo Munoz; Rosa Montero, a prize-winning newspaper columnist, and Pilar Brabo, a Communist Party member of Congress.

The statement said that Spanish justice was "condemning women for the mere fact that they do not have the 40,000 pesetas [ $600] required to abort in Great Britain."

On Saturday, 300 women occupied part of the Justice Ministry building in Madrid for a teach-in on the Bilbao 11, and similar protests were staged elsewhere. According to eyewitnesses, a detachment of riot police violently ejected the Madrid protestors, using truncheons and shouting zorras , which literally means vixens but is popularly used as an abusive term for prostitute. l

Protests are expected to escalate as the trial nears. The proceedings will be attended by observers from other European women's groups.