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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 October 2005, 01:44 GMT 02:44 UK
Portuguese abortion vote denied
Portuguese pro-choice protesters
Thousands of illegal abortions are believed to be carried out every year
Portugal's constitutional court has thwarted the government's plan to hold a referendum next month on relaxing the country's strict abortion laws.

Judges said the vote could not be held before September 2006 because the same referendum had been rejected by the president in the current legislature.

The government wants voters to decide whether abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy should become legal.

Abortions are currently only legal in certain situations such as rape.

"We want a law which is more modern and more European," said Prime Minister Jose Socrates, announcing that his government would propose a referendum for next September.

The ruling Socialists had originally intended to hold the vote on 27 November.

The mainly Roman Catholic country has one of Europe's strictest abortion laws.

Currently, a woman can have an abortion only if her life is in danger, to protect her mental or physical health, or in cases of rape, incest or foetal impairment.

They cannot be performed at all after the 12th week.

The final decision on calling a public vote lies with President Jorge Sampaio, who is said to support legalised abortion.

He rejected a referendum in May because he considered voter turnout would not be high enough.

Portugal narrowly rejected a move to legalise abortion in a 1998 referendum, but voter turnout was tiny. Public opinion is reported to have shifted in recent years.

The court ruled that proposing the same referendum after it had already been rejected in the current legislature was not allowed by the constitution.


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