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Abortion debate divides country


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Echoes of the first abortion referendum in Portugal in 1998 resonate in the lead up to a second poll, due to take place between January and April 2007.

The socialists raised the issue with a proposal in parliament to re-open the debate in the hope that abortions would be legalised. Even at these early stages, the country appears divided, but many are confident that abortions in Portugal will soon be legal.

The referendum in 1998 was disregarded because less than 50 per cent of the electorate participated, the vote to legalise abortions was narrowly won.

Down, but not out, the socialists returned to power last year and one of their electoral promises was to call for another referendum. Prime Minister José Sócrates publicly announced that he was a supporter of the legalisation of abortion before the referendum was discussed in parliament two weeks ago.

The proposal for a second referendum was approved and politicians cast their votes. The public vote to decriminalise abortions up to the 10th week of pregnancy was approved with the Left Bloc, Socialists, as well as the Social Democrats voting yes and the Communist and Green Party disagreeing with the proposal.

The Conservative Popular Party abstained from voting altogether. The reason that the Communists did not initially agree to the referendum was that they preferred to discuss the matter in parliament only. Since then, they have announced that in the referendum they will support the legalisation of abortions.

They were keen to dismiss any claims that they were not pro-choice, emphasising that they did not believe the decision should be voted on by the public.

Following the agreement to hold a referendum, Cavaco Silva sent the proposal to the Constitutional Tribunal (TC) last week, which is a standard obligatory practice for referendums to be legally recognised. The TC has 25 days from the time they receive the proposal, or until November 20, to respond.

Each year, it is estimated that 40,000 illegal abortions take place. Many government ministers have agreed that if legalised, less women would be admitted to hospital as a result of poorly performed and illegal abortions, usually in unsanitary conditions.

In opposition to the legalisation of abortions is the Church.

Last week, Portuguese bishops and archbishops called on all priests to clarify their loyalties with regard to the abortion debate. The clergy urged its representatives to show a united front and encourage them, even in small communities, to join the fight to stop the legalisation.

Regardless of the age of the foetus, the Church believes it should not be allowed to be aborted.

Last week, the Portuguese Episcopal Conference was held at Fátima and the abortion referendum was at the top of the agenda. The outcome of the meeting was a declaration that abortions violated the fifth commandment – Thou Shalt not Kill.

In the coming months, the Church will spearhead a fierce campaign throughout the country to voice its opinion on abortions. Leaders said it was “not a political campaign, but a campaign of conscience”.

Pro-choice organisations have remained relatively quiet throughout the last few weeks and many believe this to be a sign of their confidence that they will prevail.

The referendum taking place in the first quarter of 2007 will ask the citizens of Portugal, “Do you agree with the decriminalisation of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, if it were, by choice of a woman, in the first 10 weeks, in a legally authorised establishment?”

Polls have already been conducted to predict the outcome of the referendum and, for the most part, the results show that the country is in favour of legalisation, but the figures are still close.