Three years in prison – that is how long a woman in Portugal can spend behind bars if she has an abortion. It is one of the harshest laws in Europe and could disappear in January. The ruling Socialists support legalisation, arguing that the current situation makes Portugal seem backwards. But public opinion in the Roman Catholic country is sharply divided.
While anti-abortionists are up in arms the pro-abortion lobby says a change in the law is essential for Portugal to enter the modern world. They say the current situation persecutes women. Eight years ago Portugal voted on the issue in a nationwide referendum. The No campaigners came narrowly ahead with 51 percent but because there was a very high abstention rate, the ballot was declared void.
In Europe most countries allow abortion between 12 and 24 weeks. But in Poland, Ireland, Malta and Portugal, unless there are extreme circumstances, termination is a crime. In Portugal 20,000 secret abortions take place every year – but a quarter of those women are rushed to emergency wards because of complications. The socialist government wants to see an end to the hazardous practice of backstreet abortions.