BRUSSELS, Belgium (WOMENSENEWS)--Voters in Portugal will cast their ballots Feb. 11 on a referendum to legalize abortions during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
The vote is part of a controversy also building in Ireland, Poland and Malta, the three other countries in the 27-member European Union that ban abortion. In addition to legislative initiatives such as referenda, advocates are also tussling with governments in national and international courts.
Women's advocates in these countries decry risky and illegal abortions and the inequitable application of bans to women with lower incomes who cannot afford to cross borders to get the procedure.
Portugal bans all abortions except those performed up to 12 weeks in cases of rape, when the fetus is malformed or when the woman's life is in danger.
Roughly 20,000 illegal abortions are performed in Portugal every year with about a quarter of patients ending up in the hospital with complications, says Maria Jose Magalhaes, psychology professor at the University of Porto and president of the Porto chapter of women's rights group UMAR, the Lisbon-based Women's Union of Alternative Answers. In 2003, she says, the number of cases with complications reached 11,000.
Women who can afford it, however, seek abortions in nearby Spain or as far away as Holland or Germany, Magalhaes says.
Karen Griffin, spokesperson for the Dublin-based Irish Family Planning Association, says the same thing is happening in Ireland.
"Women on low income are particularly adversely impacted by the ban on abortion," says Griffin, noting that low-income women are entitled to free health care for all medical services except abortion. "The Irish Family Planning Association sees a great many women who seek counseling assistance not because they are uncertain about their options but because they are in need of financial assistance. Many women experiencing poverty turn to moneylenders who charge extortionate rates for short-term loans to cover the cost of abortion and required travel."
Thousands Travel for Abortions
U.K. government statistics show that in 2004, nearly 6,500 Irish women traveled to the United Kingdom for an abortion while the Irish Family Planning Association estimates hundreds more every year go to Spain and the Netherlands.
Griffin says that although there has been a significant shift in public opinion in relation to abortion no new legislation has been introduced. A January 2006 poll in the Irish Examiner newspaper showed 47 percent of the population is anti-choice but that the majority of those voters are over 35, indicating a possible shift in public opinion in the future.
Pro-choice groups in Portugal who pushed the referendum have been fighting for two decades to modernize their country's laws. Three years ago, they delivered a petition with 120,000 signatures to the Parliament for a referendum that was blocked by Jose Manuel Barroso, the former prime minister who now heads the European Commission.
Forty-three percent of Portuguese voters plan to stay away from next month's election, but of those who do plan to vote, 61 percent said they would vote in favor, 27 percent plan to vote against and the rest are undecided, according to a poll published Jan. 10 in the Portuguese newspaper Correio da Mahna.
Prime Minister Jose Socrates, a Socialist, is campaigning in support of the measure but his minister for parliamentary affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, cautioned reporters earlier this month that proponents could be disappointed by a high abstention rate.
A similar referendum in 1998 failed because of low voter turnout.
After that vote, the Barroso government launched a legal crackdown on abortion-seekers and those who helped them, from nurses to family members.
One major case in late 2001 put 43 people on trial in the local court in Maia, a village north of Porto, which included 17 women who sought abortions.
One woman was sentenced to a year in prison, which was later lightened to a fine. A nurse was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
The legal fight over abortion bans in Portugal and in other countries with bans has also been pushed into the legal arena beyond the European Union, which may one day force countries to adopt more liberal policies toward abortion.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France--which is mandated to uphold the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 45 countries--has tried dozens of abortion-related cases since its inception in 1954.
This has created a substantial case law, but the court has not yet ruled that the "right to life" extends to the unborn, according to Roderick Liddell, a spokesperson for the European Court of Human Rights.
In fact, the court has ruled that the unborn are not included yet as people whose rights are guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and has also ruled that women who are denied abortions can be acknowledged as "victims" for not being allowed the "right to private and family life."
Irish Campaign Launched
Last year, the Irish Family Planning Association launched the "Safe and Legal in Ireland" campaign to legalize abortion, which is completely banned but women are entitled to receive counseling and advice about their options.
One of the main pillars of the campaign is support for a legal case in the European Court of Human Rights filed by three Irish women who traveled abroad to receive abortions during 2006.
The case hinges on four articles of the European Convention on Human Rights including the right of privacy in all family, home and personal interest, as well as entitlement to no public interference from any public authority in exercising this right, and the protection of individuals from "inhuman or degrading treatment." Only about 10 percent of cases put forward to the European Court of Human Rights receive a hearing, according to Liddell, because most fail to exhaust all lower courts in their nation of origin.
One case originating in Portugal involving Women on Waves, the Dutch organization that operates an abortion clinic on a ship, is in the court's backlog.
The ship--the Borndiep--has also traveled to Ireland and Poland, picking up women who need abortions and other reproductive health services while in harbor then sailing into international waters to perform the procedure.
According to Dutch law, Dutch ships are only subject to Dutch law and the Netherlands doesn't require a license to abort pregnancies of less than 6.5 weeks.
Women on Waves' ship set sail for Portugal in August 2004 but Portugal sent two warships to block its path.
The ship was forced to anchor off-shore while protracted negotiations were held between the Dutch and Portuguese governments. Women on Waves' founder, Rebecca Gomperts, says the Dutch foreign minister requested that Portugal pull back and let the ship through.
The diplomatic route failed and after two weeks, Women on Waves turned back toward Holland, never having entered Portuguese waters.
Since then, Women on Waves has been pressing the case in various Portuguese courts that have dismissed it because the ship had left their jurisdiction, says Gomperts.
Meghan Sapp is European correspondent for Women's eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.
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For more information:
"Abortion Access Gains Backing as Human Right":
Women on Waves: