|global | REPORTS
Portugal is finally ready to legalize abortion
At Los Arcos, the receptionist
answers the phone,
“Bom dia.” That would be
unremarkable if this abortion clinic
were in Lisbon, but Los Arcos is in
Badajoz, Spain. Yet the receptionist
prefers the Portuguese greeting
because approximately 70 percent of
the clinic’s patients come from the
neighboring country, where abortion
remains illegal—but not for long.
In February, 59.25 percent of voters
cast ballots for decriminalizing
abortion in Portugal, but because
only 40 percent of eligible voters
turned out, the decision is not legally
binding (it required 50 percent). Still,
Prime Minister José Socrates quickly
promised to bring the proposal before
Parliament, where his Socialist party
has a clear majority.
A similar referendum in 1998 failed
by less than one point, with an even
smaller voter turnout. This time, pro-choice
organizations mounted massive
campaigns to turn out the “yes” vote in
the heavily Roman Catholic country.
An estimated 20,000 Portuguese
women undergo illegal abortions each
year, and about 9,000 more—mostly
middle-class women—cross into Spain
to clinics like Los Arcos. Since 2002,
40 women have been found guilty of obtaining abortions, subjected
to prison sentences of up
to three years.
On paper, the current
Portuguese law is not so different
from its Spanish counterpart.
Both allow abortion
only in cases of rape, fetal deformity,
or threat to the
physical or mental health of
the woman. The difference is
in practice: Doctors in Spain consider
a woman’s socioeconomic circumstances
in assessing psychological risk;
Portuguese doctors largely have not.
And whereas in Spain there are hundreds
of private abortion clinics, in
Portugal there were none—at least legal
ones—although Los Arcos planned
to open a Lisbon branch in March.
More often than not, Portuguese
hospitals refuse to perform abortions.
“A doctor may refer a woman because
of risk to her mental health,” explains
psychologist Cecilia Costa of Médicos
Pela Escolha (Doctors for Choice),
“but when she gets to the hospital, they
can demand a team of their own doctors
approve it as well.”
Many physicians support changing
the law, but Portugal’s medical code of
ethics, which dates to 1885, prohibits
doctors from performing abortions.
Even after the 1984 law specified cases
in which abortion was justified, the
most important medical association,
Ordem dos Médicos, prohibited members
from performing the procedure.
“There’s a double morality,” says
Yolanda Hernández, director of the
Los Arcos clinic. “Doctors will protest
abortion in public, then perform them
secretly.” (The money is the draw—an
illegal abortion in Portugal costs up to
1,000 euros, at Los Arcos 450.) Not
much longer. In televised remarks the
night of the referendum, Prime Minister
Socrates declared victory, announcing,
“The people have spoken with a
clear voice.” And in March, Parliament
voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion,
without restrictions, up until the
10th week of pregnancy. The measure
must be signed by President Cavaco
Silva and published in official records
before it can become law—a process
expected to take several months.
RIDING THE WAVES
If there was one moment in recent years that catalyzed Portuguese feminists’ struggle for
abortion rights, it was when Women on Waves ran into a blockade by the Portuguese Navy.
In 2004, the Netherlands-based nonprofit—founded by physician Rebecca Gomperts
and dedicated to preventing unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions—sent their small
ship, Borndiep, toward Portuguese waters, outfitted with an onboard abortion clinic. As it
had in previous visits to Ireland and Poland, the group offered to take women aboard and
provide abortions while sailing in international waters. But this time, the Borndiep’s presence
was deemed a threat to national security, and the ship was blocked from entering national
waters by two Portuguese warships. Nonetheless, the campaign received
tremendous press coverage, inspiring new volunteers to join the abortion-rights effort.
Says Ana Cristina Santos, a Portuguese sociologist and activist, “I honestly believe [the
abortion referendum’s positive outcome] was only possible thanks to the big, big waves we
made in our 2004 campaign.”