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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Portugal agrees to abortion poll
Women listen to debate in parliament
Public opinion in Portugal has changed towards abortion
The Portuguese parliament has agreed to hold a referendum on relaxing the country's abortion laws, which are among the strictest in Europe.

Voters will be asked whether they agree that abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy should no longer be illegal.

Six years ago, voters rejected reform but opinion polls show that legalising abortion within the first 10 weeks would meet with public approval.

In the UK, a termination can be carried out up until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

No date has been set for the referendum in Portugal, although it is not expected to be before the summer. Portugal is also planning to hold a referendum on the text of the European Constitution later in the year.

Close vote

The motion for the abortion referendum was put forward by the governing Socialist Party, which came to power after a landslide win in general elections in February. Voters will be asked: "Do you agree that abortions, carried out in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, with the woman's consent, in a legal medical establishment, should no longer be illegal?"

Under current law a women 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.

Thousands of illegal "backstreet" abortions are believed to be carried out every year.

In the 1998 referendum voters upheld the existing laws by 51% to 49%. But public opinion in Portugal, which is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, is reported to have changed after a series of prosecutions of women who had abortions.

The vote in parliament was backed by the Socialists and the small left bloc.

The Communist Party, which said parliament should enact reform itself, without a referendum, voted against the plan, as did the conservative Popular Party. The main opposition, the right-of-centre Social Democrats, abstained.


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