Portugal Fails to Legalize Abortion, But All is Not Lost

Portugal’s referendum to legalize abortion in the first ten weeks of pregnancy was partially successful. About 60% of voters said yes, but turnout was too low to make the referendum binding; however, the result gives the Socialist-dominated parliament the political capital necessary to overturn the law itself.

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.


It could still be some time, however, before the law is changed. A bill would have to be voted on first 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 that usually takes several months.

Portugal is one of the most religious nations in Europe; it’s almost on a par with Poland. The Catholic Church is, as always, the prime mover behind abortion restrictions. The three EU countries with the strictest abortion restrictions – Ireland, Poland, and Portugal – are also the ones where the Catholic Church is strongest.

Officially, the Catholic Church’s position was that people shouldn’t vote. But that was the pro-lifer’s rational strategy, since voting no could increase turnout above the requisite 50% without unseating the majority for yes. If that sounds too abstract, consider this: at 60% yes and a turnout of 44% (though CNN’s reporting 34-40, not 44), if 7% of the population turned out and voted no instead of abstained then the turnout would’ve been high enough but there would’ve been a 52-48 majority for legalization.

Prime Minister Socrates is right when he calls the current law backward. Portugal has the second least sexually promiscuous population of all European countries surveyed but one of the highest teen birth rates; Poland has the least promiscuous population and about the same teen birth rate as Portugal. The third pro-life European country, Ireland, only has teen birth statistics, which are as bad as these of Portugal and Poland.

For sure, legalizing abortion alone only increases the abortion rate, though it’s at the expense of unwanted births. But it makes abortion safer and recognizes its existence. Portuguese women who go to Spain to abort don’t enter any Portuguese statistics. So this will help people recognize just how bad the problem of teen pregnancy is, and what is needed to prevent it (hint: there’s a reason NL has the lowest overall rate).

10 Responses to Portugal Fails to Legalize Abortion, But All is Not Lost

  1. rod. says:


    As a Portuguese citizen who’s reasonably aware of what’s happening in my own country, I dare to feel entitled to comment.

    Indeed, Portugal is one of the most religious nations in Europe, and yes, Catholic Church is once again the prime mover behind abortion restrictions. Personally, I am atheist, so I am not influenced at all by the Church, but that doesn’t mean that I am totally pro-choice either. Things are more complicated than that.

    Though Portugal is “officially” very religious, the youngest generations are more and more atheist, or at least they are less and less susceptible to the dogma of the Church… and many young atheists are more pro-lifers than pro-choicers. It’s not black&white… there are many shades of gray in here.

    For instance, the public health system in Portugal has been degrading over the years. People pay taxes, and when one needs to get a service one paid taxes for, like health care, then you have 2 options:

    – rely on the public health system, which is very slow, and not really that trustworthy

    – if you have money, go for private health care; it sucks that you had to pay all those taxes and you are not using the public system…

    Many people oposed the pro-choice movement, not because they are religious, but because the Government did a very poor job at setting the abortion laws. In a way, people didn’t vote in order to punish the government. If abortion is legalized, then abortion will have priority over all other medical emergencies, and this is very wrong. I don’t want my taxes to pay for the abortions of idiotic teenagers who didn’t know that there are things called condoms and other means to prevent undesirable pregnancy. I don’t want to see people who are in need of medical surgery to be put aside because abortion has higher priority. Fortunately, the “day-after” pill can be sold without medical prescription (the Church obviously tried to forbid that), unlike in the US. On the other hand, it’s true that there are many idiotic teenagers who have no idea about sex education because of the evil influence of the Catholic Church… it’s a complicated problem, but more money should be invested in teaching people, and less money in killing babies (or fetuses). If our advanced western society can’t find a better way to deal with the problem other than killing fetuses, then something went wrong. It’s better to educate the people than to use last-resource solutions such as abortion.

    Unfortunately, the Catholic Church does not want people to be educated. Ignorants are much easier to control, right?

    Of course, things would be very different if abortions were carried out in private hospitals, and if people paid for it… if it’s not my taxes, I really don’t care all that much. I believe that killing a fetus is a horrible thing, but the idea of having an unwanted birth is even worse…

    Overall, I hope abortion is legalized in the end, but in a different way. This government misled people. We should focus on what under conditions we want abortion legalized… but we just got lost in the “yes vs no” war, which is pretty dumb. Nobody likes to discuss the details. People care only for the big things… right vs left, pro-choice vc pro-life, pro-war vs anti-war. I am sick of that…

  2. f abortion is legalized, then abortion will have priority over all other medical emergencies, and this is very wrong. I don’t want my taxes to pay for the abortions of idiotic teenagers who didn’t know that there are things called condoms and other means to prevent undesirable pregnancy.

    If they are not aware of the existence of these things, then there is obviously something wrong with their education (and I don’t think that one can justify it by saying that it’s up to the parents), and then the state should cover the cost, since they didn’t do the job right in the first place.

    I guess you ment it retorically though. However, many cases of abortion happens because of traditional prevention didn’t work as it should, or because of rape. Other reasons could be medical.

    In cases like rape or medical emergencies, I’m sure it’s possible to make the laws in such a way that they can be paid, but that doesn’t help in all the cases where the couple did everything right, but the woman still got pregnant.

  3. rod. says:

    Right now, the situation in Portugal is: if there’s an unwanted pregnancy due to rape or fetus malformation, then abortion can be carried out legally. I totally agree with this, although the Church still oposes it.

    In cases where the couple did everything right, but still got pregnant, then I believe that abortion should be legal. However, the couple should pay for it, not the taxpayers.

    In cases where teenagers are poorly informed and thus get pregnant, then it’s obvious that there’s something wrong with their education. That’s easy to say, but what can be done? Sex ed classes? Ok, that could work, but the real problem is in society and in the evil influence of the Church. The same happens in the US. The same happens in other parts of the world.

    It’s interesting to note that although Swedish teenagers and younsters are more sexually active than their US counterparts, the incidence of sexual transmitted infections in the US is 50 times higher than in Sweden. It’s a social problem. People need to be educated, and Church has got to shut the hell up. Period.

  4. Axel says:

    Very interesting how different media coverage is:


    Washington Post: Portugal Fails to Overturn Abortion Law
    Picture: Portuguese nun Maria Jesus Fernandes, 72, casts her ballot in the national referendum on whether to legalize abortion Sunday, Feb. 11 2007, in Porto, northern Portugal. Portugal has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

    CNN: Few vote on Portugal abortion law
    Picture: A pregnant woman attends Mass at Lisbon’s 16th-century Jeronimos Monastery church.


    BBC: Portugal will legalise abortion
    Picture: Portugal has some of the strictest abortion laws in the EU
    Quote: “The people spoke with a clear voice” – Prime Minister Jose Socrates

    Guardian: Catholic Portugal votes to allow abortion in early pregnancy.
    Subtitle: Low turnout, but mandate for Socialists to reform law. At present 40,000 women a year risk jail or go abroad.

    Deutsche Welle: Portugal to Legalize Abortion after Referendum
    Pictures: Pro-choice activists handed out campaign leaflets with the word “Yes” in downtown Lisbon / Jose Socrates believes the yes vote will lead to a more tolerant Portugal / Experts say backstreet abortions in Portugal are risky

  5. rod. says:

    Indeed! Funny how the same event can be so “creatively” distorted by both sides.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Well, strictly speaking Portugal didn’t vote to overturn the ban. The vote merely gave the government the political capital to overturn it itself.

  7. anonyma says:

    rod.: for the record, abortion needn’t be very expensive. The RU-86 (or whatever its name is now) is quite cheap, and doesn’t interfere with anybody else’s being cured. Except it is not allowed in some country – e.g., Italy. Guess why.
    I don’t think most of abortion are uninformed teenagers. I think a large part is happily married couples where something went wrong with contraception: a woman has 30+ years of fertility, so statistically it’s not unlikely that she gets into an unwanted pregnancy even with good contraceptive use. Alon, do you know?
    Finally, the argument “it’s her choice, let her pay” should be extended to the costly cures of smokers with lung cancer, drinkers with heart problems, obese people with diabetes… where are you going to stop?

  8. Axel says:


    as far as I know, Portugal’s Socialist government already legalized Mifepristone / RU 486 in 2006 after the WHO decided to include it on its list of medicines that are essential to good health. The actual referendum was about the “decriminalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, in the first 10 weeks, in a legally authorized health establishment”.

    The “International Encyclopedia of Sexuality” (1997-2001) has some information about contraception, abortion, and population planning in Portugal.

  9. I am portuguese either . The referendum result was not binding but since the yes to liberalization had more votes than the no, the government will legalize abortion on demand.
    A few years ago there was a firt referendo and the No won for a slight margin . The left was mad. When the socialist government took power they promised to make a second referendum in order to overturn the results of the first one . And that is exactly what they did.
    And they suceed.
    This time the yes won.
    When it comes to abortion I am completely against it.
    I really do not understand how people can favour abortion.
    Abortion does deny the most basic human right to the fetus – the right to life.
    Does that make sense ? No way.
    It does open the door to ( among other crimes) the gendercide in India.
    In india there are villages with 600 men and no woman because women are aborted.
    Is this right ? If one does give adults the ” right ” to abort ( as the abortionists do ) there is nothing wrong about it.
    If one does believe in the right to live ( as I do ) this is a crime.
    You can check in the link a great text about why the abortionists are wrong.
    No human being should have the power of life or death over other innocent human being.

  10. besides when it comes to me , to be or not to be against abortion has nothing to do with the catholic church.
    The same way my belief that children should not be raped by adults has nothing to do with religion.
    For me its obvious no human being has the right to harm or kill innocent human life.
    Fetus is human life ( We all were fetus at some point of our lives. Many people still sleep in a fetal position ).
    It is wrong to kill or harm the fetus.
    To harm the fetus It is as wrong as murdering newborns in their craddles,its simple.

    Abortionists like to acuse pro life people of being religious, backward.
    This is propaganda.
    Many pro life believe in human rights for all , while abortionists deny others the human rights.

    By instance : The center for reproductive rights claims that :
    “The Center maintains that recognizing the right to life from conception threatens women’s basic human rights, including rights to dignity, equality, and privacy.”.
    They want all the rights to women but they deny fetus the most basic right , the right to life.

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