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Sunday, June 28, 1998 Published at 17:41 GMT 18:41 UK

World: Europe

Portugal's abortion bill abandoned

Campaigners failed to persuade many people to vote

Portugal's governing Socialist party has decided to abandon a bill to legalise abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy after 70% of the country's voters chose not to vote in a referendum on the issue.

The result - a 1% majority for retaining the existing restrictions - would have been binding only if more than half the electorate had voted.

A BBC correspondent in Lisbon says the Socialist party has decided against continuing with the bill because it would have been politically risky to do so.

President Jorge Sampaio was known to favour the proposal but kept his opinions to himself. The prime minister, Antonio Guterres, is a practising Catholic and opposed the proposal, though most of his party supported it.

Their appeals to citizens to exercise their vote clearly fell on deaf ears. Politicians had feared a turnout of less than 50% would undermine faith in the political system.

Clear stand by church

In this overwhelmingly Catholic country, where the church has taken a clear stand against abortion, many voters who might have voted in favour have been reluctant to express a firm view.

Parliament approved a bill relaxing abortion restrictions in February, but opponents successfully pushed for a national ballot on whether to overturn or ratify the legislation.

At present, abortions are allowed only for strict medical reasons or in cases of rape, and women can be jailed for up to three years for having an illegal abortion.

The law elsewhere in Europe:

  • Italy: Abortion on demand is legal until the end of the 12th week. This law was introduced in 1978 and backed by a referendum in 1981.

  • Ireland: A referendum in 1993 voted to keep abortion illegal, though it made it legal for the first time to travel abroad to have an abortion.

  • Poland: For many years, abortion on demand was legal, but in 1993 the country outlawed abortion for all but strict medical reasons. In 1996, the Polish parliament passed a slightly more liberal law, but this was deemed unconstitutional by the high court.

  • Spain: Abortion is legal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape, foetal abnormality, or risk to the pregnant woman's life or mental heath, according to a 1985 law

  • United Kingdom: Abortion is legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, according to a law introduced in 1967, but only in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the 1967 law never came into force, so abortion is still not legal, though no law specifically prohibits it.

  • Switzerland: Abortion is illegal, unless the life of the pregnant woman is in danger.

  • Germany: Legal on condition that the woman has consulted a recognised counsellor.

  • Sweden: Abortion is legal.

  • Denmark: Abortion is legal until the 12th week of pregnancy.

  • Romania: Abortion is legal until the 12th week of pregnancy.

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    Internet Links

    International Society of Abortion Doctors

    Human Life International - Catholic pro-life organisation

    Life Decisions International - US based pro-life organisation

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