It's official: on February 11, 2007, Portuguese citizens will vote on whether or not to make abortion legal without restriction within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Portugal is one of the few countries in Europe where abortion is illegal under most circumstances; currently, the procedure is legally available only in cases where a pregnant woman's life is at risk, or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or fetal malformation. Despite the restrictive laws, tens of thousands of Portuguese women seek illegal, unsafe abortions every year, and pro-choice organizations estimate that some 10,000 of them wind up in the hospital with complications. Worse, women who seek unsafe abortions face harsh prison sentences, and are subjected to the additional trauma of having their sentence read out loud during public and often televised trials. Inter Press Service has an excellent analysis of the current situation here.
The referendum, approved in October by the Portuguese parliament, has received backing from Prime Minister Jose Sócrates and President Aníbal Cavaco e Silva. Sócrates has called Portugal's unsafe abortion epidemic "a sign of a backward country," arguing that the referendum "is aimed at putting an end to the persecution of women." On agreeing to the referendum last week, Cavaco e Silva stated, "The fact that [unsafe abortion] is a problem that continues to foster a live debate in Portuguese society…is reason enough to call on citizens to express their opinion with their vote."
How refreshing it is that at least some politicians worldwide still have the moral courage to describe women's access to safe abortion as a matter of democratic urgency. It's a far cry from the parade of abortion-inspired moral cowardice currently passing for democracy in the Western Hemisphere – from Chile, where the congress recently voted to reject debate on a measure that would have legalized therapeutic abortion up to 12 weeks, to Nicaragua, where the National Assembly just banned therapeutic abortion in a pre-election scramble clearly intended to curry favor with the Catholic Church, to the United States, where a lame duck House, backed by a spineless Senate, will vote today on the loathsome Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, another purely political concoction that will accomplish little more than further fueling the culture wars. Since when did standing up for women's right to life, health, and dignity become political suicide?