Portugal’s abortion law still stands because of low voter turnout

LISBON, Portugal – A national referendum to scrap Portugal’s strict abortion law appeared headed to defeat Sunday because of low turnout, even though a majority of voters approved it.

Turnout was below the 50 percent required to make the ballot valid, according to exit polls. The government has said it would enact legislation easing the abortion law if most of those who voted Sunday backed the proposal.

Debate over the abortion law, one of the most restrictive in the European Union, pitted the Socialist government against conservative parties and the Catholic Church, which claims more than 90 percent of Portuguese as followers.

Under current law, the procedure is allowed only in cases of rape, fetal malformation or if a mother’s health is in danger, and only in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In most 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. Portugal’s center-left Socialist government wants to grant women the right to opt for abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Between 57-61 percent voted in favor of allowing women to ask for abortions up to the 10th week, compared with 39-43 percent who opposed the change, according to a poll by public broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa. However, the poll said turnout was around 34-40 percent.

The government has portrayed the ballot as a measure of Portugal’s willingness to adopt more modern attitudes. Its effort to change the law, though, has run into emphatic opposition from the church, which wants to keep the restrictions in place.

After the projections were announced, television footage showed cheering activists at the headquarters of civic movements which supported the government’s proposal.

The single question on the ballot asked voters if they want to allow abortion up to the 10th week. Voters at more than 12,000 polling stations ticked a box under “yes” or “no.”

Recent opinion polls had indicated that a majority of Portugal’s 8.9 million registered voters intended to approve the change.

It would be the second time in nine years that a referendum on the deeply divisive issue failed to draw enough voters. In 1998, a majority of voters rejected a similar proposal; the referendum was declared void because of a low turnout, and Portugal’s policy remained unchanged.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who has long campaigned for abortion rights, has called the current law “backward” and “a national disgrace.”

He says women seeking to terminate their pregnancies simply travel to EU countries where it is legal, especially private clinics across the border in Spain, or resort to shady, back-street clinics at home.

He cites figures compiled by abortion rights groups – and disputed by their opponents – that around 10,000 women are hospitalized every year with complications arising from botched back-street abortions.

Women opting for illegal abortions risk up to three years in prison. However, none has ever been jailed, though doctors and nurses who assisted the procedure have.

Even if the government proceeds with its pledge to implement more liberal policies, it could be several months before women can choose to terminate their pregnancies.

A bill would have to be voted on in Parliament and then go to the president for approval. It would come into force only when the new legislation is published in the public records – a procedure which usually takes months.