Portugal Prepares for Referendum on Abortion

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Paris, France (CNSNews.com) - The Socialist prime minister of Portugal has pledged to push through a move to legalize abortion even if a forthcoming referendum on the subject fails to achieve a required turnout threshold.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates says that as long as a majority of those who do vote support an end to current restrictions, he will then use his parliamentary majority to change the abortion law.

His stance has upset opponents, given that 50 percent of registered voters must cast ballots in order for the referendum to be valid. A 1998 referendum on the issue was declared invalid because of low voter turnout (In that instance, 51 percent of those who voted supported maintaining the abortion restrictions.)

Portugal is one of just four countries in the 25-member European Union (E.U.) where abortion restrictions remain in place. The others are Poland, Ireland and Malta.

The Feb. 11 referendum seeks to legalize abortions during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Current law allows women to end their pregnancy only in cases of rape or if there is a risk to the mother or the unborn child.

Last Sunday, some 10,000 pro-life protestors marched through Lisbon, calling on people to vote "no" and reject the change.

Observers believe that while the referendum is mostly a Portuguese political issue, there is also pressure being exerted by the European Union's executive commission, as well as advocacy groups such as Planned Parenthood.

"It is true that the European Union, the Commission, is very pro-choice," said Roger Kiska, legal counsel at the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) - an affiliate of the American Center for Law and Justice - in Strasbourg, France.

"There might not be direct pressure from the Commission but there are countries ... who might be putting in their pressure, countries like France and the United Kingdom, where abortion is fairly prevalent," he said.

When Poland started accession talks to join the E.U., it came under pressure to accept "pro-choice" language, but the move was dropped after an outcry.

"As much pressure as Ireland, Malta and Poland feel, it makes their resolve even stronger," Kiska said.

The E.U., or its individual member states, also often target Third World countries by insisting they adopt "pro-choice" practices or fire pro-life government ministers before they can be awarded aid, Kiska noted.

In Portugal, the opposition Social Democratic Center and Popular Parties are campaigning against the change in legislation.

Socrates, the prime minister, said he believed the referendum would put a stop to "the prevalence of back-alley abortions," which he called a "national disgrace."

However, Kiska pointed out that the European Court of Justice has ruled that citizens of E.U. member states may travel to any other member state where abortions are legal, have an abortion, and not face prosecution at home.

"What the prime minister is saying is ridiculous, it's political gunpowder, it's simply not true," he said.

Polls indicate that the referendum will once again not get the 50 percent turnout required, because many people think that not voting would be the equivalent of voting "no."

But with Socrates' announcement that he will legalize abortion through parliament, pro-life advocates, including Portugal's Roman Catholic Church, are urging voters to go to the polls and cast their ballots for a "no" outcome.

"If the prime minister goes through with changing the law through parliament, it would be circumventing the whole purpose of the referendum," said Kiska. "You would not be getting a true majority of the voters."

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