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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 01:21 GMT
Portugal's path to legal abortions
By Andre Vornic
BBC News

Jose Socrates
Portuguese leader Jose Socrates has pledged to legalise abortion

By setting out on the path to legalise abortion, Portugal treads where most western nations did 30 or 40 years ago.

In the European Union, only Poland, Malta, and Ireland have similar bans -- all of them, much like Portugal, strongly Catholic nations on the periphery of an increasingly secular continent.

Of all European countries where strict anti-abortion laws prevail, Portugal is the only one which actively prosecutes women undergoing terminations, as well as those performing or aiding them.

As late as five years ago, 49 people went on trial in the north of the country alongside the 17 women who had aborted at a clinic in the town of Maia.

Cause celebre

Doctors, pharmacists, and even taxi drivers who had transported them faced the judges and several were convicted.

The main defendant, midwife Maria de Ceu Ribeira, was sentenced to more than eight years in jail.

The trial quickly became a cause celebre in Europe where such events smacked of times long gone.

In Portugal itself, it triggered a fresh campaign to update the legislation on reproductive rights which had barely evolved since the overthrow of a reactionary dictatorship in the mid-1970s.

Much has changed in Portugal in the intervening decades. But although rich by world standards, the country remains by a long stretch the poorest in western Europe.

A Portuguese nun
Portugal remains a strongly Catholic nation

Economic growth has been stagnant in recent years. Education levels are comparatively low, and rural traditions strong.

Pro-choice activists have long blamed this climate for the lack of a progressive consensus in Portugal.

The contrast could hardly be starker with neighbouring Spain, where soaring prosperity has fostered one the most socially liberal societies anywhere in the world.

Portugal will legalise abortion
11 Feb 07 |  Europe

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