Low turnout could undermine Portugal abortion referendum

[JURIST] A referendum on Portugal's strict abortion laws indicated Sunday that a majority of voters support loosening the current law [text, in Portuguese], but turnout was likely too low [AP report] to give the decision legal force. Exit polls from Radiotelevisao Portuguesa [network website, in Portuguese] showed that between 57 and 61 percent of voters would legalize abortion up until the 10th week of pregnancy for all women, but only 34-40 percent of the 8.7 million eligible voters took part amidst rainy weather conditions. At least 50% of the voting population must participate for the referendum to be legally binding. The Socialist government, which proposed [press release, in Portuguese; JURIST report] the idea last September, has said that it may act on the result even without a majority turnout.

The Portuguese Parliament [official website, in Portuguese] approved [JURIST report] the national referendum in October. The current law only permits an abortion up until the 12th week of pregnancy in cases of risk to the mother's health, until the 16th week in cases of rape, and up to the 24th week in cases of fetal malformation. Opponents of the change, led by a Roman Catholic Church which counts 90% of the country as members, protested in the streets [JURIST report] of Lisbon last month. Supporters say that the law unfairly targets the poor, as wealthier women can travel to Spain and other countries to obtain the procedure. Abortion rights groups estimate that approximately 10,000 Portuguese women are hospitalized each year from complications to failed backstreet procedures; an estimated 23,000 illegal abortions are performed in Portugal annually.

Portugal has made several unsuccessful attempts in the last 10 years to ease restrictions on abortion. In 1998, a referendum on legalizing abortion was declared void due to low voter turnout, yet there was a slight majority voting against the referendum. A second referendum was proposed in November, 2005, but the country's Constitutional Court held that the vote could not be held [JURIST report] before September of this year, because the same referendum had been rejected in current legislature by the now-former president. Reuters has more. The Financial Times has additional coverage.

 

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