Portugal’s Government Vows To Legalise Abortion After Referendum

The ruling socialist party in Portugal now intends to use its parliamentary majority to legalise abortion following a failed referendum on Sunday. The turn-out in the referendum was too low to make it binding, but of those who did vote 59.3 per cent wanted to lift the abortion ban and 40.8 per cent to keep it.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates said the outcome was in favour of lifting the ban, despite the turnout. “The people spoke with a clear voice,” Mr Socrates said in a televised speech.

"The law will now be discussed and approved in Parliament. Our interest is to fight clandestine abortion and we have to produce a law that respects the result of the referendum,” he said.

The Socialists, who promised to hold an abortion referendum when elected in early 2005, hold 121 seats in the 230-seat parliament and can count on backing from at least two other parties. A spokesman for Mr Socrates said it was not yet decided when the motion to legalise abortion would be sent to parliament.

Those who opposed abortion questioned Mr Socrates’ interpretation of the vote. “Socrates will be responsible for this sad chapter in Portugal’s history, for insisting on a political move that has split Portuguese society,” said Jose Ribeiro e Castro, head of the Partido Popular party that campaigned for the no vote. “Low voter turnout has confirmed that (abortion) was not a critical issue,” he said.

When the ban is lifted, Portugal will join most European countries in allowing abortions and leave Ireland, Poland and Malta with strict anti-abortion laws. Portugal’s abortion law will allow terminations only in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, making it more restrictive than most countries where they are permitted until much later.

The yes camp used the estimated 23,000 clandestine abortions every year as the focus of their campaign to legalise abortion. Opponents feared the move could erode traditional values in one of Europe’s most conservative countries. Catholic leaders were concerned that legalising abortion would raise costs in the health service and increase the number of abortions.