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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 18:00 GMT
Trial reignites Portugal abortion debate
Maria do Ceu Ribeiro, who was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison
Many women's groups condemned the trial
By the BBC's Alison Roberts in Lisbon

The abortion trial in northern Portugal has reignited the debate on abortion reform in a country where tens of thousands of women have such operations each year.

We've been waiting for reform for almost 30 years. It's a disgrace

Helena Roseta, Socialist Party
The issue has been politically dormant since 1998, when voters rejected by 51% to 49% a referendum on legalising abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Turnout was just 32%, despite campaigns for and against reform that involved many leading figures in Portuguese politics and society and dominated newspapers and airwaves for weeks.

In this deeply Catholic country, many observers saw the role of the Church as crucial in prompting many people to abstain who might otherwise have considered voting for what, in the wider European context, was a relatively modest reform.

People don't agree with the idea that women who have had abortions should be seen as criminals

Francisco Louca, Left Block

Campaigners for reform express outrage at what they see as the hypocrisy of a situation where rich women can afford to fly to Britain for abortions, whereas the poor are forced to have them in illegal clinics, often in highly unsafe conditions.

Gynaecologists say that most women in hospital for life-threatening complications during pregnancy are there as the result of an illegal abortion.

Big business

The midwife, Maria do Ceu Ribeiro, who was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years, is alleged to have had a well-established business with a marketing network that involved taxi drivers and pharmacy workers.

A pro-abortion demonstrator
Three years ago a campaign to legalise abortion failed

In recent years, the number of legal abortions carried out each year in Portugal has been below 500, but estimates of the total number range from 20,000 to 100,000.

Many other women cross the border to Spain to have an abortion there.

Although the Spanish law is similar, it is interpreted less strictly where the mother's psychological health is concerned.

"We've been waiting for reform for almost 30 years," said Helena Roseta, a deputy for the governing Socialists whose motion calling for a new abortion reform bill was rejected narrowly at the last party congress.

"It's a disgrace."

Restrictive laws

Under the dictatorship that lasted until the 1974 Revolution, Portugal's laws on social issues were among the most restrictive in Europe.

In 1982 came the first attempt, sponsored by the Communist Party, to remove 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 abort a pregnancy 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 get enough votes.

Pressure for change

Since one of the bills failed by just one vote, campaigners for reform kept up the pressure.

In February 1998, there were two more proposals. The Socialist-sponsored one, setting a less ambitious 10-week limit, was passed by 116 votes to 107.

Even as its sponsors celebrated, the leaders of the two largest parties, Prime Minister Antonio Guterres and Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of the centre-right Social Democratic Party - both of whom had expressed their personal opposition to reform - did a deal.

They agreed to hold a referendum on the issue before parliament could give the bill its final reading.

As they foresaw, with such a controversial issue it was hard for those in favour of reform to argue against consulting the electorate, and many Socialist members who had backed reform accepted a referendum.

Country split

The campaign split the country, with the powerful Catholic Church lining up with the Social Democrats and the right-wing Popular Party on one side, and Portugal's tiny women's groups joining forces with the Communists on the other.

The Socialists were split, with Guterres conspicuously absent from the debate.

The way Socialist Party leaders acted on this issue was later seen as one of the reasons why the Left Block, a new grouping formed by three radical parties not previously represented in parliament, won two seats in the 1999 general election.

"People don't agree with the idea that women who have had abortions should be seen as criminals," said Left Block deputy Francisco Louçã.

"This reform is a part of a process of democratic modernisation that has happened across Europe, but which hasn't been completed in Portugal."

Socialist deputy Roseta makes the same point.

"It makes no sense for us to be part of Europe in all respects except this," she told a phone-in on Portuguese radio station TSF on the final day of the trial in Maia.

Portugese MEP Sergio Pinto
"Legislation should not be the result of this emotional situation"
Duarte Villa from International Planned Parenthood
"Women who have money can go to a clinic"
See also:

14 Jun 01 | Europe
Abortion ship in stormy waters
24 Jan 01 | Americas
Analysis: Bush's abortion signal
22 Jan 01 | Americas
The history of Roe vs Wade
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