From Socialist Voice, February 2007

Portuguese referendum on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy

by Isabel O’Sullivan Lopes da Silva

On 11 February last, millions of Portuguese voted in a referendum on the decriminalisation of abortion. This was a second referendum on the issue, following one in 1998 that, despite supporting an end to penalising abortion by a slim majority, was ruled void because fewer than 50 per cent of voters turned out.
     The outcome of Sunday 11 February was 59 per cent yes, 41 per cent no, but with a turn-out of 46 per cent. Portugal’s Socialist Party government and the left-wing parties (Communist Party, Greens, and Left Bloc) must now use their parliamentary majority to speedily legalise abortion up to the tenth week of pregnancy, despite there not being enough voters in the referendum to make the result binding.
     The victory of the Yes movement represents an affirmation of progressive and civilisational values, an expression of tolerance and respect for the convictions of each and every Portuguese, an important victory for women and the right to defend their dignity and health. It also represents an unmistakable act of democracy and freedom, which honours the heritage of the 1974 Revolution.
     It is now time, without any further delay, to accept the results and implement the opinion expressed by more than 2 million Portuguese, men and women. The time has come to assume, with no hesitations, the responsibilities deriving from this outcome. Therefore it is urgent that the legislative process in Parliament be concluded, despite those in favour of the No, who will not refrain from carrying out manoeuvres and pressures under the excuse of the non-binding character of the results and contrary to what, in the opposite sense, was argued in 1998, in the first referendum on the issue, refusing the rightful legitimacy of the Parliament to approve a law on decriminalisation.
     The Portuguese Communist Party stands for an urgent materialisation of the legislative process, contributing to avoiding prolonging the lost time and adopting decisions fully complying with the meaning and deep content of this outcome. Thus, the victory of Yes puts an end to a long dilatory process and leaves no space for excuses from those who have always tried to prevent it.
     Having achieved this result, the PCP members, sympathisers, friends and other allies, along with its long struggle, were actively involved, mobilising and clarifying the electorate all over the country, through hundreds of initiatives and actions.
     The most expressive results were obtained in the regions where the PCP has a greater influence: Lisbon, Oporto, Coimbra, Évora, Beja, Setúbal, and Faro.
     The present situation in Portugal on this issue is dictated by an unjust law which penalises women and girls, mainly of the working class and the poor, suffering therewith all the consequences of insecure and undercover abortion. It is not a question of defending the right to abortion but otherwise: to ensure the right of women to choose a free and conscious maternity.
       It is estimated that there are about forty thousand undercover abortions per year in Portugal, and it is known that about nine thousand women attend clinics in Spain for the purpose every year. According to the Yes groups, about ten thousand women are hospitalised every year in the country because of complications following illegal abortions and owing to the present law, which neither prevents nor discourages abortion but drives it underground.
     This same law operates against women’s health, dignity, and capacity for taking responsible decisions. The inquiries, accusations, judgements and condemnations of up to three years in prison have shown, along with the innumerable risks to health, that on the contrary it has not been dissuasive of the practice of abortion.
     Therefore it is urgent that a law be approved that will oblige the state to repair the unjust and long-lasting violence it has exercised on the many generations of Portuguese women and consequently consider the implementation by health services of family planning, sex education at schools from an early age, and economic and social conditions that will guarantee the right of women and couples to decide the moment and the number of children they want to bear.
     The outcome of this political act is awaited as one of a number of urgent law reforms governing Portuguese society and the end of the criminalisation of women and girls, victims of an intolerable situation. The ultimate achievement will therefore be a more just and human society and an undeferred step towards the dignifying of all Portuguese women.

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