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BBC News , February 12, 2007

Portugal Will Legalize Abortion

Prime Minister Jose Socrates has said abortion will be legalised in Portugal despite the turnout for a referendum being too low to be legally binding.

Turnout was about 40%, far less than the 50% required, but of those who did vote, 59.3% backed a proposed change to the current law.

The proposal allows all women abortion until the 10th week of pregnancy.

Currently abortions are only allowed in cases of rape, a health threat to the mother or serious foetal abnormality.

"The law will now be discussed and approved in parliament," Mr Socrates said. "Our interest is to fight clandestine abortion and we have to produce a law that respects the result of the referendum."

"The people spoke with a clear voice," he added.

But the leader of Partido Popular, which campaigned against the change, said the prime minister was acting too hastily.

"Socrates will be responsible for this sad chapter in Portugal's history, for insisting on a political move that has split Portuguese society," said Jose Ribeiro e Castro.

"Low voter turnout has confirmed that (abortion) was not a critical issue."

Going abroad

Portugal currently has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union. Only Ireland, Malta and Poland have such similarly strict legislation.

The mainly Catholic country currently allows abortions up the 12th week to save a woman's life or to preserve her mental or physical health.

In cases of rape, abortions are allowed within 16 weeks. The limit is 24 weeks if there is a risk that the child will be born with an incurable disease or deformity.

As a result many Portuguese women go to Spain for terminations or resort to illegal abortions.

Some women have abortions done in unsanitary conditions and risk ending up with infections or other serious complications from which they may die.

In a referendum held in 1998, voters upheld the existing abortion law by 51% to 49%, but the result was declared void as nearly seven out of 10 voters stayed away.

The Socialists made holding another referendum part of their election platform in 2005.

Jail threat

Voters were being asked to decide whether to make abortion legal in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, if carried out at the woman's request in a registered clinic.

But since the wording says nothing about the woman having to justify her decision, those against the reform say it is abortion on demand.

The idea of sending someone to prison for having an illegal abortion is universally unpopular - the offence carries a jail sentence of up to three years.

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