By: Ruth Sharpe
Portugal is set to legalise abortion despite low voter turnout in the referendum on February 11. The ‘Yes’ vote won, with 59.25 per cent of voters supporting the bill to change the current law.
Despite the win, around 60 per cent of the population of registered voters chose to stay at home and abstain from voting.
Despite the law stating that over 50 per cent of the population have to vote to make a referendum legally binding, Prime Minister José Sócrates, who has openly supported the ‘Yes’ vote, declared that the result will be respected and will now be subject to discussion and approval in Parliament. “The people have spoken in a clear voice. Our interest is to fight clandestine abortion and we have to produce a law that respects the result of the referendum,” Sócrates said.
The referendum asked voters to decide whether to make abortion legal in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy if carried out at the women’s request at a registered clinic.
The voting took place all over the country and, at 9.50pm, press agency Lusa posted revised figures from all 4,260 freguesias in Portugal: 59.25 per cent of voters were in favour compared to 40.75 per cent against.
Previously, abortions in Portugal were only allowed up to the 12th week of pregnancy in cases where it was threatening the woman’s life or to preserve her mental or physical health. In cases of rape, the limit was extended to 16 weeks and 24 weeks if there was a risk that the child would have been born with an incurable disease or deformity.
In the 1998 referendum on the same topic, voters upheld the existing abortion law by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, however, the result was declared void as nearly 70 per cent of voters didn’t turnout.
The Socialist party have been keen to have another referendum since coming to power in 2005, in order to create a new modern way of thinking among Portuguese society.
Of all the European countries where strict anti-abortion laws prevail (Portugal, Ireland, Malta and Poland), Portugal is the only one which actively prosecutes women undergoing terminations, as well as those performing or aiding them.
Women can go to prison for up to three years for having an illegal abortion and those who aid the process, such as midwives have received sentences of up to eight years. Although rarely implemented, the law is universally unpopular.
In the Algarve, the 16 municipalities unanimously voted ‘Yes’ with the highest vote in favour of the new law registered in Vila do Bispo with 81 per cent. Faro had the highest voter turnout (44.6 per cent) registering 75.7 per cent in favour (nearly 50,000 votes). The only hotly contested area was in Monchique where the ‘Yes’ vote only narrowly won with 51.3 per cent.
Other high turnouts occurred in Lagos and Portimão, registering 75.7 per cent and 72 per cent in favour respectively.
The voting pattern highlighted a massive divide between the north and south of the country. The north voted against allowing abortion up to 10 weeks, a trend largely expected due to the strict Catholicism in the area. The church had stated in the run up to the election that any Catholics who voted in favour of abortion would face excommunication.
Those in opposition warned Parliament that it will suffer if it acts too quickly. José Ribeiro e Castro, leader of the Partido Popular (CDS-PP), who opposed the vote, said: “Sócrates will be responsible for this sad chapter in Portuguese history, for insisting on a political move that has split Portuguese society.” He further implied that the matter did not need addressing immediately saying: “Low voter turnout has confirmed that abortion was not a critical issue.”
Currently, many women either go to Spain for terminations or resort to illegal abortions. Those who cannot afford this often end up having terminations in unsanitary conditions and risk serious infection.
The wording of the proposed law does not specify that the woman has to justify her decision to have an abortion. Catholics believe that this means abortion is now available on demand, a move that goes against their strict religious beliefs.
By setting out to legalise abortion, Portugal treads where most western nations did 30 or 40 years ago. Legislation on reproductive rights has barely evolved in the country since the mid-1970s.
Parliament will now discuss the finer details of the law and decide whether to make abortion available on the national health service or just through private medical clinics.
The final decision ultimately rests with President Cavaco Silva, who has the casting vote on whether or not to implement new laws once discussed by Parliament.
What is your reaction to the outcome of the referendum? Did you vote?
Send your comments to [email protected] or vote in this week’s online poll:
Is Portugal right to legalise abortion?