Politicians in Portugal and UK debate abortion

news: Politicians in Portugal and UK debate abortion

Portugal’s parliament has approved a new referendum on abortion. The proposal for the new referendum was passed with the support of the Socialist Party (PS) and the far-left Bloco de Esquerda (BE), with the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) abstaining. The far-right Popular Party CDS/PP, implacably opposed to abortion, voted against the referendum. The Communists and the Greens also voted against but for different reasons – they believe the law should be changed without consulting the people.

The question sought by the Socialist Party for the referendum is as follows: “Do you agree that abortions performed in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, in a legal health establishment with the mother’s consent, should cease to constitute a crime”?

Recent polls show that the public would probably back the new revision to the law. But at the moment it is unclear whether President Sampaio will agree to hold the referendum this summer. That would risk a low turnout similar to the last referendum in 1998 when voters narrowly rejected, by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, a similar proposal to legalise abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Just 32 per cent of the nation voted in the last referendum despite intense campaigning and a fevered media debate.

In Britain, too, the issue of abortion has become prominent during the election campaign. Conservative leader Michael Howard said he supports a reduction in the legal time limit for abortions from 24 weeks (the current limit in the UK) to 20 weeks. He told Cosmopolitan magazine that current rules are “tantamount to abortion on demand”. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has supported Howard’s stance, with a view to eventually achieving “full abandonment” of abortions.

Portugal’s laws among

strictest in Europe

Portugal’s main concern about a referendum is that turnout would be derisory. President Sampaio, speaking before the parliamentary debate, voiced his fear that the timing of the referendum was inappropriate. He said referenda should take place at a time that “guarantees a profound democratic debate and significant civic participation”. Commentators concluded that he was opposed to a referendum in the short term, particularly in the same year as a referendum on the European Constitution.

Portugal’s abortion laws have long been among the most restrictive in Europe. Nevertheless, up to 40,000 illegal abortions, some of which are fatal, are carried out every year and gynaecologists say that most women in hospital for life-threatening complications during pregnancy are there as the result of an illegal abortion.

In 1982 the Communist Party tried to overturn the outright ban on abortion. But, it was only in 1984 that parliament approved a law drafted by Socialist Mário Soares. For the first time it was legal for a woman to have an abortion in the first 12 weeks in cases of rape or if doctors took the view that she would die or suffer serious physical or psychological harm if the pregnancy went ahead. A decade later, another law was passed allowing for abortion up to 16 weeks in cases of severe foetal deformation. That limit was increased to 24 weeks in 1997, while two proposals to legalise abortion, put forward separately by the ruling Socialists and the Communists, failed to secure enough votes.

Catholic Church musters opposition

In the event of another referendum on abortion, proponents can count on the firm opposition of the Catholic Church. D José Policarpo, Lisbon’s chief cardinal, has said that abortion should not be “a political debate” but rather “a cultural and moral debate” about the future of the country. “Our resolve springs from our firm conviction that human life arises from the very first moment of conception. To interrupt it violently is the most serious expression of disrespect for life,” he has said. On this and other issues the Church will continue to rail against what is sees as an increasing moral relativism permeating modernity.

In Europe abortion has not traditionally become a major issue in determining preferences at elections, neither has it ever been a litmus test for a politician’s Conservative or Social Democratic credentials. In Britain issues such as abortion are deemed to be matters of individual conscience for members of parliament. Social issues, embracing a whole raft of issues such as capital punishment, euthanasia, stem cell research, cloning and abortion, are seen as secondary to economic considerations at elections. In America, on the other hand, abortion is an emotive issue that can derail candidates’ campaigns if they offend the Christian Fundamentalist lobby. But Europe may be changing. Ideological differences have evaporated as parties converge on key economic issues, so paving the way for wider discussions about the kind of society we inhabit. Elections of the future will be decided on a whole raft of issues. Immigration, crime, democracy, globalisation, family values, wars and abortion are all likely to become increasingly important. Perhaps the old maxim of “It’s the economy-stupid” will no longer apply.

By Gabriel Hershman