Portugal is one of the few places in European family of nations which still bans abortions. Portuguese Prime Minister José(Zé) Socrates' decision to hold a referendum on legalising abortion, approved by Parliament will probably be held in mid-November and will probably bring in changes more in line with her partners in the EU. Although in 1984 the law was changed to allow abortion in certain exceptional circumstances such as risk of danger to the life or health of the mother, a malformed foetus or rape, women still face up to 3 years in prison for procuring an abortion or more for performing one.
The number of backstreet abortions annually in Portugal is estimated at between about 20,000 and 40,000, while thousands more go abroad to terminate unwanted pregnancies under different legal jurisdictions. and Figures from the Portuguese health ministry say five women died last year after secret abortions.
It is frequently claimed that 700 legal abortions take place annually. It must be remembered that in Portugal (Penal Code Art. 172,175) the age of consent for sexual intercourse with adults (i.e. over 18) is set at 14 for heterosexual sex, (and at 16 for homosexual sex ).The legal age limit for marriage is 18 but may be 16 with parental consent. Sexual orientation is now protected by the Portuguese Constitution following EU directives, and gay couples can form civil unions.
In 1998 a referendum was held on changing the law to allow abortion on demand up to 10 weeks into pregnancy. The proposal was narrowly defeated ( by 51% to 49%) but voter turnout at 30% was very low.The new referendum will probably use the question, "Do you agree that abortions, carried out in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, with the woman's consent, in a legal medical establishment, should no longer be illegal?"
In January 2002 a mass abortion “show” trial was held involving 42 women, one of whom was 16 at the time of the abortion. A nurse who performed abortions in her home was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. In 2004 the President commuted her sentence.
The women who were accused of having their pregnancies terminated either had charges against them dropped or had their prison sentences commuted to fines.
In March 2004, members of Portugal's parliament voted down three separate proposals to legalize abortion after more than 200,000 petitions were submitted against them.
"The solution for a woman in difficulty should never be the death of her unborn child," said one of the leaders of a pro-life coalition, Teresa Aires de Campos, after the votes.
"We want to create a society where a newborn child is never seen as a burden that needs to be eliminated. We want to create a country where a child is always welcomed."
In August 2004 the Dutch “abortion” ship, run by charity “Women on the Waves”, The “Borndiep” a white container transformed into a floating gynaecological clinic, is staffed by a doctor, gynaecologist (Gunilla Kleiverda )and a nurse. It visited Portugal after having caused outrage after visiting Ireland in 2001 and Poland in 2003. The Government banned it from docking and women were ferried to the boat for treatment where it anchored off the port of Figueira da Foz, near Coimbra, for nearly a fortnight.
The government's ban, on public health grounds, was reinforced by a court ruling. Far-right Defence Minister, Paulo Portas, was delighted and compared the women's shipboard campaign to drug trafficking. "If Portugal allowed the ship into its waters, it would not have authority against illegal fishing, drug trafficking or clandestine immigration,"
In July 2005 , the BBC reported 7 women were acquitted of illegally terminating their pregnancies, with the court ruling there was not enough evidence to convict the women. The case dating back to 1999 involved the claimed payment to a nurse of about $480 each to terminate their pregnancies . The women from the Portuguese fishing community of Aveiro were prosecuted — facing three-year prison sentences — along with 10 "accomplices,"
including husbands, boyfriends, parents and a taxi driver who had taken a pregnant woman to a clinic.
The police staked out gynaecological clinics and questioned those who emerged looking as if they might have had abortions because they looked particularly pale, weak or upset. At the trial, the most intimate aspects of their gynaecological history were revealed.
The trial had achieved notoriety when it was resumed after an eight-month suspension following a defense motion to remove presiding judge Maria de Conceicao Miranda. Pedro Delille, the lawyer for the nurse, said he was convinced his client could not receive a fair trial after the judge made a clearly biased statement.
According to the lawyer the judge stated during one of the hearings that people who "devote themselves to such crimes are generally seeking financial gain."
The nurse accused of performing the abortions is now being tried separately.
In February’s elections, which they won with a landslide the Socialists promised to introduce a referendum on abortion if elected but put it off during the summer holidays. Last week Parliament approved a referendum be taken. The measure (vote needs at least 50% turnout to be ratified )goes to President Jorge Sampaio (who is claimed to be sympathetic to a change in the law) to set a date in a crowded election schedule, The Government favour a vote on Nov. 27, between Oct. 9 municipal polls and presidential elections in January while the main opposition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD), believes the vote should be pushed to a date after the Presidential election in 2006.
A recent opinion poll shows that people in Portugal now support abortion rights, 79 percent to 14 percent. There's a growing sense that while abortion may be wrong, criminalization is worse. Remember, in the Portuguese constitution the referendum is only consultative, not legislative.
There may be a lesson here for Bushist critics of Roe v Wade.
"Prohibir el aborto no salva a nadie ni a nada" dice Sonia Fertuzinhos, parlamentaria portuguesa, "solo consigue arrestar a mujeres y humillarlas en la arena pública".
"Forbidding abortion doesn't save anyone or anything," said Sonia Fertuzinhos, a Portuguese member of Parliament. "It just gets women arrested and humiliated in the public arena."
The paradoxical result is many the Portuguese, a Catholic nation, seem to be both anti-abortion and pro-choice. They are morally uncomfortable with abortion, especially late in pregnancies, but they don't think the solution is to arrest young women, make them a public spectacle and then send them to prison.
Recent blogs on same topic here