Twenty three European countries allow relatively free access to abortion.
However, four largely Roman Catholic European countries:
Ireland, Malta, Poland, and Portugal criminalize most abortions. About 90% of
the population of Portugal are Catholic as are 93% in
Ireland, 95% in Poland, and 98% of in Malta.
An estimated 23,000 illegal abortions take place in Portugal each year. Some
pro-choice advocates estimate that about 10,000 women are hospitalized each year
for complications caused by back-street abortions. Pro-lifers estimate a lower
number. 8 Many women simply
cross the border into Spain where abortions have been legal since 1987.
Abortion is criminalized in
Portugal except for pregnancies of 12 weeks or under that were caused by rape,
or involve a deformed fetus, or where there are serious
health concerns for the woman. The country has been under some pressure from the
European Union to allow abortion access. 1
In 1998, a plebiscite which would
allow women to choose to have an abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy
was rejected by an extremely narrow vote: 50.07% to 49.93%. Only 32% of the
electorate turned out to vote.
Poll data in the year 2004 showed
that almost 3 in 4 Portuguese adults favor a new referendum, and that they would
vote more than 2 to 1 in favor. However, polling data often do not predict the
result of a referendum. Those adults who strongly hold a
belief about abortion access tend to be more likely to make the effort to vote in a plebiscite. In
the case of abortion access in Portugal, this would probably be devout Roman
Catholics voting against the legalization of abortion. Meanwhile, those who do
not hold strong beliefs on the topic would be less likely to vote. Any
plebiscite would probably not reflect the true wishes of Portuguese adults and
would be biased in the "no access" direction.
A second plebiscite was held on 2007-FEB-11. The vote was 59.25 % in favor of
abortion access and 40.75% in favor of continuing the criminalization of
abortion. This was a ratio of close to 1.5 to 1. However, the turnout for the
plebiscite was only 43%, making the results non-binding.
On the next day, an earthquake of strength 5.8 on the Richter scale was felt
all over Portugal. American TFP, a
conservative Catholic web site, suggested that the earthquake might have been
caused by God indicating his displeasure.
2004-JAN-26: Women on trial:
faced sentences of up to three years in jail if found guilty of
having had an abortion. Also charged were a doctor and two of his employees who
faced charges of up to eight years if found guilty.
Seven parents, husbands or boyfriends of the women were also charged for the
crime of giving emotional support to the women by allegedly accompanying them to
the clinic. The prosecution suffered a severe setback when ultrasound scans of
the seven women went "missing." Outside the courthouse, pro-choice campaigners
demonstrated in favor of abortion reform. They argued that the current laws
force thousands of women every year to have abortions in back street clinics,
often in highly unsanitary conditions.
Legislator Odete Santos said: "The law should be declared unconstitutional
because it does not respect the individual liberty guaranteed in the
constitution." A petition had been circulating since 2003-NOV with the goal
of decriminalizing abortion in the country. Various news reports indicate that
65,000 to 100,000 signatures had been collected; 75,000 were needed before a
referendum would be required. 3
All were initially acquitted. 9
The Feminist Daily News Wire reported that: "A three-judge panel found
no proof that the accused women had undergone the abortions." 10
During 2006-JUN, A Portuguese court of appeals in Coimbra, Portugal,
overturned many of the acquittals, and sentenced the physician to three years
and eight months in prison. An assistant received a sentence of 16 months which
was suspended for three years. Three of the seven women who were accused of
having an abortion were sentenced to six months in jail, but had their sentence
suspended for two years. 11
on abortion likely:
The ruling Socialist party and the
opposition Social Democrats tentatively decided to hold another referendum in
2007-JAN. The final decision will be made by the president. Alberto Martins, a
spokesperson for the Socialists said that his party would:
fight for the right to abortion, to end legislation it considers socially
unjust and which it sees as a disgrace for Portugal in terms of a modern
Nuno Melo, a spokesperson for the
Christian Democrats said:
"We are opposed to a
liberalization of abortion as a matter of principle. Proposals like this are
not going to make us shift our position. Do not expect a change of heart
from the Christian Democrats in parliament on this."4
2006-OCT-16: Start of government campaign to allow abortion access:
Prime Minister Jose Socrates delivered a speech at the Women's Sexual and
Reproductive Health Conference, which had been organized by the Socialist
deputies of the European Parliament. He said, in part:
"What is at stake here is that women who wish to abort should be free to
do so up to 10 weeks of pregnancy without being persecuted or prosecuted.
... The Socialist Party does not impose its will. Every person should be
free and I support the yes campaign."
In their advertising to promote abortion access, the Socialist Party
emphasized the clandestine abortions which have been performed for years under
dangerous condition. They suggested that a "yes" vote on the plebiscite would
greatly reduce the danger to women's lives.
2007-JAN-08: Portugal: Results of
public opinion poll released:
Results of a poll commissioned by
The Portuguese daily newspaper Correio da Manha were released. it showed
that 64.1% of Portuguese voters intended to vote yes in a coming referendum on
abortion access to be held on FEB-11. Voters will be asked: "Do you agree
with the decriminalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, in the
first 10 weeks, in a legally authorized health establishment?" 27.3% said
that they would vote no, to uphold the present law. This is a ratio of in excess
of 2.3 to 1 in favor of abortion access. However, the turnout for the vote was
expected to be low. Some observers speculated that insufficient registered
voters would turn out at the referendum to make it binding.
2007-JAN-11 and later: Reaction to the plebiscite:
The vote was held on Sunday, 2007-JAN-11. As noted above, the vote was 59.25
% in favor of abortion access and 40.75% in favor of continuing the
criminalization of abortion. However, the total turnout for the plebiscite was
only 43%, making the results void. 50% was needed.
The Catholic Church condemned abortion during the campaign leading up to the
vote. They suggested that moral decay might result if abortions were allowed.
That might lead to other social changes, such as the legalization of
same-sex marriage. The church adopted a low profile
during the campaign leading up to the plebiscite. They left most of the
campaigning up to lay Catholic organizations.
On JAN-16, five days after the vote, the Portuguese Episcopal Conference
of the Catholic church issued a pastoral note. They said that they had to accept
the reality that most Portuguese adults favor abortion access; they must
increase their efforts to teach a culture of life, where human life is protected
from conception until natural death. They noted that, in particular, many youth
in the country have abandoned the church's teaching in this area. They quoted
recent studies which concluded that many pregnant women would not seek abortions
if support services were available to them. 6
Luis Solimeo of American TFP wrote:
"On the eve of the referendum, Lisbon’s conservative paper Correio da
Manhã published a long article with the title, 'Priests Call on People to
Vote, Give No Indication of ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’' It quotes statements by priests
and bishops from all over Portugal saying they would not speak directly
about the abortion referendum during Sunday masses on election day. ..."
"Abortion is not only a sin of itself but also the consequence of other
sins, such as the pervading promiscuity of today’s society. Immoral
fashions, which Our Lady spoke against at Fatima, have brought unspeakable
levels of immodesty, above all on beaches."
"Indeed, the fact that a majority of those who voted
chose the legal elimination of children in the mother’s womb makes its
rejection of divine law even graver."
"Such transgressions cannot fail to give rise to personal
speculation about whether the little-reported earthquake (5.8 in the Richter
scale) felt all over Portugal the morning after the referendum was a
manifestation of God’s displeasure." 1
Prime Minister Jose Socrates has promised to use his party's
majority in Parliament to pass legislation allowing abortion in the event that
the results favored abortion access, but the turnout was too low to make the
The following information sources were used to prepare the above report in
the year 2000, and update it since. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Luis Solimeo, "Abortion in Portugal: Man Speaks, God Responds," undated but
approximately 2007-FEB-15, American TFP,
"Abortion trial wraps up in Portugal amid protests," Yahoo News,
"Abortion referendum likely in Portugal," EuorNews, 2006-SEP-18, at:
"Portuguese government launches campaign in abortion referendum," People's
Daily Online, 2006-OCT-17, at:
"The new context of the fight for the life: pastoral note of the Portuguese
Episcopal Conference, Vatican, 2007-FEB-16, at:
http://www.radiovaticana.org/ This article is in Portuguese, and can be
translated by Babel Fish at:
Axel Bugge, "PREVIEW: Portugal abortion vote divides country," Reuters,
E"motions Run High Ahead of Portugal Abortion Vote. Portugal mulls a break
with tradition in abortion referendum," Associated Press, 2007-FEB-10, at:
"Three Women Stand Trial for Abortion in Portugal," Feminist Daily News
Wire, 2004-JUL-08, at:
"Portuguese Women Acquitted In Abortion Case," Feminist Daily News Wire,
"Portuguese Appeals Court Charges Doctor, Assistant, Three Women In Abortion
Case, Overrules Acquittal Of Lower Court," Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report,
Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-16
Latest update: 2007-FEB-16
Author: B.A. Robinson