Vote on Abortion May Alter Portugal's Tradition

It's 6 p.m. on a recent spring night, and thousands of abortion-rights activists march into a small public square from the latticework streets of the district. Some of the marchers chant. Some hold aloft signs with women's rights symbols.

Some sway silently and stare. They are solemn, defiant. The backdrop could be any American city. But this is Lisbon's Parliament Square, just across from the National Basilica, the heart of Roman Catholic Portugal.

For decades, Portugal has been a staunch opponent of abortion, an expression of the Catholic Church's hold on national life. Suddenly, however, a new and unexpected jolt to that tradition has emerged: public clamoring for abortion rights.

It comes on the eve of a referendum vote on a controversial new abortion law. The law, which would never have passed even a few years ago, may be approved. A poll taken last week indicates that 55 percent of Portuguese will vote "yes" June 28. The ballot will ask them whether they approve of a law that would allow pregnancies to be ended on demand during the first 10 weeks.

"The time has come for Portuguese to ... join the modern world," said Dolores Andrade after last week's rally. "I want to live in a country where women have a right to choose for themselves whether or not to have an abortion."

The call for abortion rights is principally voiced in large cities and by younger generations. As recently as five years ago, according to surveys, 70 percent of Portuguese citizens opposed abortion.

While some 96 percent of Portuguese identify themselves as Catholics, polls also indicate that a majority now disagree with the church's teachings against abortion, contraception, and divorce.

"A majority of people have the idea that the church's vision is outdated," says Helena Duarte, a sociologist at Lisbon's New University. "So they feel they have a right to resolve their own intimate issues without any guilt that they have compromised their own religious faith."

Growing awareness of abortion's sometimes horrifying consequences has been a factor too.

Many Portuguese began to support abortion rights after two women died after attempting to self-abort last year. The women swallowed sterilizing tablets to end their pregnancies. Their deaths left behind several motherless children and put a spotlight on the alarming consequences of some clandestine abortions. Last year, 12,000 women were treated in public hospitals as a result of having had illegal abortions. Health officials say botched abortions are one of the main causes of maternal mortality in Portugal.

"I don't favor abortion, nor would I ever have cause to turn to it myself," says Maria Gomes Ferreira, a Catholic and mother of three. "But I realize the need for some kind of legislation in this day, if only to prevent the practice of dangerous, life-threatening clandestine abortions."

Portugal's current abortion law, passed in 1984, allows the termination of pregnancy only for medical reasons such as fetus malformation or risk to the mother's life. But critics say the criteria are so strict that few abortions are carried out legally. In 1997, there were 280 legal abortions in a nation of 11 million people. Illegal abortions may be as high as 16,000 a year, health experts say.

Groups opposing abortion also have held demonstrations, and church leaders have urged parishioners to vote no.

The calling of the referendum was a personal defeat for Prime Minister Antonio Guterres. Mr. Guterres, a Socialist and an ardent Catholic, publicly opposed the bill, which was sponsored by young members of his own Socialist Party.

Polls suggest that even if the referendum ratifies the law, many doctors will refuse to perform abortions on the basis that it is morally wrong.

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