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Portugal abortion vote stirs passions

Today's referendum on liberalizing the law would signal change in the Catholic country.

February 11, 2007|Barry Hatton | Associated Press Writer

LISBON — Bishop Antonio Montes Moreira compares abortion to the hanging of Saddam Hussein. Parish priest Tarsicio Alves warns worshipers they'll be automatically excommunicated if they vote yes in a referendum today.

The heated passions aroused by a proposal to liberalize Portugal's abortion law are turning the vote into a closely run affair and a test of how much the 90% Roman Catholic country is changing.

Portugal has a liberal center-left government but is steeped in a conservative culture. It is among a dwindling number of European democracies that strictly limit abortion.

The procedure is allowed only in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and only in cases of rape, fetal malformation or physical danger to the mother.

The ruling Socialist Party is proposing abortion on demand, although only in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy -- still stricter than the 12-week limit in Germany, France and Italy.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates has campaigned vigorously for a "yes" vote, calling Portugal's abortion law "a national disgrace." Churchmen are resisting just as fiercely.

Bishop Moreira made the Hussein analogy, in remarks to priests that he later defended on radio and TV, to capitalize on widespread public disgust over the manner of the ousted Iraqi leader's hanging. He called abortion "a variation on the death sentence."

Father Miguel Alves, who oversees two Catholic kindergartens near Lisbon, the capital, ordered leaflets placed in children's knapsacks which contained an imaginary letter to parents from an aborted fetus. "Mom, how could you kill me?" it said. "How could you let them chop me up and throw me in a bucket?"

Portugal, a dictatorship until 1974, has gradually opened up and liberalized during 20 years of membership in the European Union, pushing much of its legislation into closer line with the continent's older democracies. Today only three EU countries -- Poland, Ireland and Malta -- have restrictions comparable to Portugal's.

Today's ballot may provide a measure of that change. A 1998 referendum on the same question failed to draw the required turnout of at least one vote more than 50%, and was nullified. This time, opinion polls indicate that just over half of the country's 8.9 million registered voters will vote "yes."

Socrates' Socialists won election by a landslide almost two years ago, promising broad reforms and modernization. The 49-year-old divorced father of two says that if today's turnout again falls short but a plurality votes for the change, he will push the necessary legislation through parliament.

He says his country's approach to abortion is "backward," and adds: "What we have to do now is what more developed nations did 20 or 30 years ago."

He says the current law merely drives abortion underground, into back-street clinics. The alternative is to travel to EU countries where it is legal, especially private clinics across the border in Spain, which recognizes the psychological condition of the mother as grounds for permitting an abortion.

Socrates quotes figures compiled by abortion rights groups -- and disputed by their opponents -- that about 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.

In the 2001 census, about 26% of Portuguese said they attended church regularly, down from 29% a decade earlier. But many more share the church's principles, and that has traditionally discouraged governments from touching on questions of faith.

A conservative government tried to streamline the calendar of public holidays, including religious ones, but backed down when church leaders objected.

In 2004, the same government sent a warship to turn away a boat carrying abortion rights campaigners from the Netherlands to Lisbon. "The church still exerts a huge influence here," said Andre Freire, a lecturer at Lisbon's Institute of Political and Social Sciences.

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