A REFERENDUM on abortion, scheduled for November 27, has been deferred until next autumn, following a key decision by the Constitutional Court. Judges ruled that the vote could not be held before September 2006 because the same referendum had been rejected by the president in the current legislature.
Last May President Sampaio rejected calls for a referendum on the basis that voter turnout would be derisory in the summer. At the end of September parliament approved a new referendum question on abortion, which was forwarded to the Constitutional Court for approval. The court had to rule on whether a new legislative session began after the February general election, as the right-wing parties believed, or only on September 15, as the Socialist Party and the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) believed. The court found in favour of the former, a pivotal judgement because the constitution prohibits the repetition of a referendum proposal that has already been rejected by the president in the same legislative session.
The referendum question was to have been as follows: “Do you agree with the decriminalisation of voluntary interruption to pregnancy, if decided by the mother, in the first 10 weeks, in an authorised medical establishment?” Currently, a woman can have an abortion only if her life is in danger, to protect her mental or physical health, or in cases of rape, incest or foetal impairment. Interruption to pregnancy is punishable with a sentence of up to three years in jail. The court’s decision now means a new referendum cannot be held before next September, the date of a new parliamentary session.
Sócrates pledges fidelity to election promise
In the wake of the decision, some left-wing parties continued to press for abortion to be decriminalised by an act of parliament. In recent comments Prime Minister José Sócrates also appeared not to have excluded the possibility of decriminalising abortion in parliament. But last weekend, reacting to the court ruling, he insisted on abiding by his party’s election pledge, calling for “democratic patience” and “fidelity to promises undertaken”.
Although Sócrates said he disagreed with the Constitutional Court’s decision, he said he intended to press ahead with a new referendum next year. “The Socialist Party understands and sympathises with those people who would like to see a more speedy solution to the serious problem of clandestine abortion. We are not indifferent to the consequences of such a profound delay in staging a referendum,” he said.
Opposition leader, Marques Mendes, said the court’s decision had been a “defeat” for José Sócrates, urging him to handle “serious and delicate issues” – such as abortion – “more cautiously”. The social democratic leader claimed that the government had now been defeated “twice” on the issue, once when the president had decided not to stage a referendum in the summer and now, for the second time, by the Constitutional Court’s ruling.