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Associated Press, March 9, 2007

Portugal to Legalize Abortion

LISBON -- Portugal's parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion up until the 10th week of pregnancy, a major step in bringing this small Roman Catholic nation in line with most of its European neighbors.

The Thursday night vote came less than a month after a popular referendum failed due to low turnout, but nonetheless showed that most voters were in favor of legalizing abortion -- in line with the trend across Europe.

By European standards, the new law is still on the restrictive side. Women can seek abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy in Britain and up to the 12th week in Germany, France and Italy. In the U.S., a 1973 Supreme Court ruling established the right to abortion, although individual states have passed laws with varying restrictions.

"This [parliamentary] vote is a turning point in Portugal's history. It's a law that ... defends women's dignity," Ricardo Rodrigues, a senior legislator from the ruling Socialist party, said Friday. He added that the government hopes decriminalizing abortion will put an end to dangerous backstreet abortions. Women's rights groups say about 10,000 women are hospitalized every year in Portugal with complications arising from botched, illegal abortions.

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.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whose party took power in a landslide victory nearly two years ago after he promised broad reforms and national modernization, had made the new abortion law a priority. He vowed after the failed referendum to move quickly for legislative passage, and has described the old abortion law as "backward."

The old law was among the most restrictive in Europe, allowing the procedure in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy only if a mother's health was at risk. In cases of rape, it was permitted through the 16th week. There was no time restriction only if an abortion was the only way to save a pregnant women's life.

The new law will set no restrictions on women seeking to end their pregnancies up until the 10th week, though it does require a mandatory three-day reflection period before an abortion will be performed. It separates Portugal from the three EU countries with the most restrictive abortion laws -- Poland, Ireland and Malta.

The bill must win presidential ratification and be published in official government records before it can become law. That process is expected to take several months.

The abortion debate pitted Mr. Socrates's government against conservatives and members of the Roman Catholic Church. Before the February referendum, one bishop said abortion was "a variation on the death sentence," and compared it to the hanging of Saddam Hussein. An outspoken parish priest warned worshippers that they would be excommunicated if they voted "yes."

Church officials had no immediate reaction to Thursday's vote.

<< Associated Press -- 3/9/07 >>

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