Portuguese referendum fails to halt pro-abortion lobby

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Portugal's Socialist government will promptly enact legislation allowing women to opt for abortions until the 10th week of pregnancy, the prime minister said.

The plan for more liberal legislation in the conservative Roman Catholic country followed a referendum yesterday in which almost 60 per cent voted for a change in Portugal's abortion laws which are among the most restrictive in Europe. Just over 40 percent opposed it.

"The option of having an abortion until the 10th week ... will no longer be a crime in our country," Prime Minister Jose Socrates said during a news conference shortly after final results were announced.

Not enough people voted to make the referendum binding - more than 50 percent were needed for that, and the turnout Sunday was close to 44 percent. The result was consequently nullified, but Socrates said he would stick to a pre-ballot pledge and send a bill to parliament where his government holds an overall majority.

"The result in unequivocal," he said. "We must respect the will of the Portuguese people."

Luis Marques Mendes, leader of the main opposition Social Democratic Party, said he would not stand in the way of granting abortion rights through the 10th week despite opposing it during campaigning.

"Even though the (referendum) result is not binding, we believe it should be democratically respected," he said.

Civic movements which campaigned to change the law welcomed the outcome of the referendum.

"Finally, women will be treated with the respect and dignity they've always deserved," said Maria Jose Alves, from a political movement called "I Vote Yes".

Joao Paulo Malta, from a civic movement called "No Platform" said the issue continued to divide the Portuguese and that high abstention showed the majority had not spoken clearly.

The Socialists' efforts to introduce more liberal laws, which failed nine years ago when a referendum on the same question drew a turnout of only 32 percent, have faced emphatic opposition from the influential Roman Catholic Church.

Church officials made no immediate comment on the referendum.

More than 90 percent of Portuguese say they are Catholic.

Portugal's current legislation places it in a minority in the bloc with Poland, Ireland and Malta.

In Portugal, the procedure is allowed only in cases of rape, fetal malformation or if a mother's health is in peril, and only in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In the 23 other EU nations, abortion is permitted within much broader limits. Women can ask for abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy in Britain and up to the 12th week in Germany, France and Italy.

Socrates, whose party took power in a landslide victory almost two years ago after he promised broad reforms and national modernization, described Portugal's law as "backward."

It merely drives abortion underground, Socrates said. Women seeking to terminate their pregnancies travel to EU countries where it is legal, especially private clinics across the border in Spain where abortion is permitted on psychological grounds, or resort to shady, back-street clinics at home.

Abortion rights campaigners say around 10,000 women are hospitalized every year with complications arising from botched back-street abortions.

"Portugal will now tackle abortion in the same way as most other developed European countries," Socrates said.

Women seeking an abortion will first go through counseling "so that the decision is a considered one, not taken out of desperation," Socrates said.

The Socialist proposal is due to be reviewed and adjusted in the coming two weeks. The bill will then be voted in parliament and sent to President Anibal Cavaco Silva, who has 20 days to rubber stamp it.

It would come into force only when the new legislation is published in the public records - a procedure which usually takes months.