Portugal wrestles with abortion on demand

For the second time in a decade voters are being asked to approve the legalising of abortion.
Joo Arajo | Feb 9 2007 | comment  

January 28th rally. Image: APOn Sunday, each eligible Portuguese citizen will have to decide whether to turn out and vote in a referendum which could give our country abortion on demand. Last time the Portuguese electorate was asked to vote on this question (in 1998) only 32 per cent participated. On that occasion there was a bare majority of two per cent against legalisation. This time round polls have shown a marked decline in the Yes vote and increases in the No camp and in the numbers who say they will abstain.
To drive home to everyone what is at stake, thousands of pro-life demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital, Lisbon, on the last Sunday of January carrying flags and banners representing all stages of life. "Refuse life to a heart that already beats? No thank you" says one popular poster. By mid-January, 16 civic action groups had registered for the "no" campaign and five for the "yes" side.

Law already makes concessions

In this historically Catholic country of 10 million people the question of abortion is particularly controversial. Portugal has a law that allows abortion at any time during pregnancy to save the mother's life; up to the 24th week in the case of fetal abnormality; and up to the 16th week in the case of rape. It also allows abortion when it is necessary to remove some danger to the psychological health of the mother up to the 12th week.

Portuguese abortion law is equivalent to the Spanish law. In fact, both were written by the same person -- a member of parliament called Zita Seabra who used to belong to the Communist Party. After managing to get this law passed in Portugal she was invited by former Spanish Socialist leader Filipe Gonzalez to go to Spain write a law for them. In an ironical twist, Ms Seabra then left the Communists, joined the Centre Party and now is siding with the "no" voters in the upcoming referendum.

In Spain, the concession to the mental health of the mother has been used to achieve abortion on demand. In the clinics there is a psychologist who signs a paper saying that the abortion is needed to save the mental health of the woman.

The same should have happened in Portugal. However, for some strange reason, the private abortion business did not start. Therefore legal abortion is only available in public hospitals where it is very difficult to get approval. There are less than 1000 per year in Portugal while in Spain, with the same law, there are more than 80,000.

There are, it is true, thousands of illegal abortions, but not nearly as many as some law change advocates make out, I believe. Nobody knows how many illegal abortions there are, but they appear to be very safe for the women (no abortion is safe for the child, of course). Many ob/gyn doctors working in public hospitals have told me that it was common 20 years ago for women to be admitted with complications from an illegal abortion, but such cases are very rare now. These doctors are convinced that illegal abortions are done by legal doctors in legal clinics. A recent study confirmed that the majority of illegal abortions were performed by medical doctors. The same study revealed that, on average, an illegal abortion in Portugal costs more than a legal one. All this suggests that "bringing an end to back-alley abortions" is a mere pretext for changing the law.

The most liberal law in Europe?

Sunday's plebiscite asks the question: "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?" It would be a mistake to see this as a mere easing of what would remain a restrictive law. If the "yes" vote wins, Portugal is going to have one of the most liberal laws in Europe -- or anywhere in the world. Abortion is going to be:

* On demand: No reason at all will need to be provided; not even "social" reasons have to be given. A minor girl can have an abortion against the will of all the family; she cannot buy tobacco or alcohol but she can get an abortion.

* Free: The state pays for the abortion. If it is not possible to do the abortion in the public hospital the woman is referred to a private clinic where she gets the abortion and the state pays for it.

* Immediate: There will be no cooling-off period. If a woman says "I want an abortion", the doctors only have to check if the baby is less than 10 weeks; if it is, then she is immediately booked for the procedure.

* Without public alternatives: There are no state-funded groups designed to help women. The law used to say that there must be a pregnancy support centre in each region -- that is, 18 of them -- but the government removed that from law.

The final result is this: The father has no say; nor do the parents (in the case of minor girls), or anybody else. If a woman is depressed and during a crisis says she wants an abortion, it does not matter that the entire family and the psychiatrist are saying to the abortionist that it's because she is ill. She gets an abortion on the spot and the state pays for it. A minor girl also can get an abortion on the spot and we pay for it. She could have several abortions in one year and there would be no problem. A woman might be looking for help, and the state would refuse to give her 700 euros to raise the children, but it will tell her: "We have 700 euros to pay for the abortion."

With the possible exception of Greece, there is no other country in Europe with such a liberal law. The rule elsewhere is: "You pay for the abortion; you have to wait some time before getting an abortion; alternatives must be offered to you; minors must have some kind of parental consent or notification." Even in the world I presume there are not many countries with such a law.

Supporting the culture of life

There is no doubt that the culture of death has made inroads in this country. On the other hand there are many pro-life groups dedicated to helping mothers troubled about a pregnancy and without them the abortion figures would be much worse. There is a very old institution (created by the wife of the king that sent ships to discover Australia) called Misericordia ("Mercy"). There are more than 2000 houses of this institution that help the poor, the ill, the old, and pregnant women. Over the centuries this church institution has saved lots of babies and they keep doing their job now.

As for the pro-life groups as such, they nearly all have two arms: an arm for the political struggle, and a support arm that helps women. The most famous pro-life group is called "Juntos pela Vida" (Together for Life) and the associated support institution is Ajuda de Berço (berço = cradle and ajuda=help). Such institutions have helped more than 80,000 women since 1998 (and the last referendum) and saved more than 2000 babies that were going to be aborted.

To spread the culture of life effectively really requires openness on the part of the media. Unfortunately our journalists are convinced that their mission is to rescue Portugal from the "Middle Ages" and that will be achieved by legalizing abortion.

There is no doubt that, if the referendum fails now to approve abortion, the question is over in Portugal. Why? Because within less than 20 years abortion is going to be forbidden in the United States, and then Europe and the rest of the world will follow. On the other hand if the Yes side wins, some hundred thousand babies are going to be lost before abortion is finally banned. These lives are what really is at stake next Sunday. Are we going to manage to save them?

João Araújo is an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics at the Open University in Lisbon, Portugal. He has worked with pro-life groups since 1996 and is the author of a book, Abortion: Yes or No?

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