Abortion debate rages on

news: Abortion debate rages on

As the topic of abortion continues to be hotly debated by politicians from all parties, a Ministry of Justice report has revealed that police officers registered a total of 197 abortion ‘crimes’ in Portugal between 1998, the year of the last referendum regarding the decriminalising of abortion, and last year. The statistics reveal that of those crimes of ‘abortion and aggravated abortion’, 30 cases came to court over six years involving 38 defendants, of which 18 were found to be guilty.

The figures were commented on this week by PCP Party MP, Odete Santos, who compared the current situation to that of Portugal prior to the 1974 revolution. “Before the April 25 revolution, it was very rare indeed for cases to come to court involving crimes of abortion,” she declared as she announced a proposal from the communists to legalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Abortion is currently punishable by a prison sentence of up to three years and abortions can only be legally performed in three particular situations – if the pregnancy is endangering the life or health of the woman, if the foetus is abnormal or if the pregnancy is a result of violence. Both Santos and fellow communist Fernanda Mateus attacked the government, blaming its politics for the rise in prosecutions, and accused them of “defining what is crime”. Mateus even alleged that the government had been assisting anti-abortion groups in order to strengthen the social stigma against women who have abortions. She went on to infer that the governing party was behind the political and legal machine being used to investigate and judge these women.

The sensitive issue of abortion in Portugal has been brought back into the spotlight thanks to the recent high profile incident involving the so-called ‘abortion boat’. The controversial vessel chartered by Dutch pro-choice group, ‘Women on Waves’, sailed into international waters close to Portugal in recent weeks, offering abortions on board as well as abortion inducing drugs.

The incident has been in the headlines for some time already and there seems to be no sign of the furore calming down, with just about every political figure, activist and campaigner wading in to comment on the issue in the media.

Pro-life groups, Human Life International (HLI), and Maternidade e Vida were at the forefront of the campaign to keep the boat out of Portugal. The groups were responsible for a series of initiatives, such as placing HLI posters showing an unborn child and the words ‘those who love do not kill’ in Portuguese throughout the port of Figueira da Foz. That was countered by the appearance, on Portuguese television, of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a qualified gynaecologist and founder of ‘Women on Waves’.

During the interview, she told viewers how to obtain the same drug used in the RU-486 abortion pill, which is illegal in Portugal, without a prescription and perform an abortion on themselves. She even posted her recommended procedure on the ‘Women on Waves’ website. Shortly after, Gomperts was forced to flee Portugal on the ‘abortion boat’, after a petition by Maternidade e Vida that she be charged with incitement to illegal abortion was favourably received by the Portuguese authorities.

The president of HLI was clearly delighted with the departure of the boat, commenting: “We send our special congratulations to Dr. Paulo Portas, Portugal’s Minister of Defence, for his prompt action in deploying the Portuguese Navy to prevent the violation of their national sovereignty by the Dutch abortion ship.”

However, in the latest chapter of the scandal, the debate has now reached Brussels, with the European Commission seeking to investigate the ‘true motives’ behind the Portuguese government’s decision to prevent the passage of the ‘abortion boat’ into territorial waters and to check the alleged violation of European Law. The intention of the Commission was announced by the European Commissioner for the Environment, Margot Wallstrom, at the European parliament in Strasbourg this week.

Meanwhile, back in Portugal, the next opportunity for the issue of abortion to be put to the vote is not likely to occur until 2006.