The Portuguese Parliament is set to vote on whether to hold a referendum that would let voters decide whether to legalize abortion. [UPDATE: On Thursday, October 19, the Portugese Parliament approved holding the referendum. The vote is expected to happen early next year.] Portugal is the only country in the European Union that actively prosecutes women and their doctors for illegal abortion, incarcerating women for up to three years if found guilty of having an illegal abortion and doctors for up to eight years for performing the abortions.
Portugal last had a referendum to legalize abortion in 1998, which lost 51 to 49 percent. Recent polls show 47 percent of Portugal is in favor of decriminalizing abortion, with 40 percent against, EuroNews reports. This shift in attitude has been attributed to recent high-profile prosecutions of women and doctors for obtaining or performing abortions, according to EuroNews. Currently, a Portuguese woman can only receive an abortion up to her 12th week of pregnancy in cases of rape, a malformed fetus, or if the woman’s health is in serious danger.
To raise awareness about Portugal’s restrictive abortion laws, Women on Waves, a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands whose mission is to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions throughout the world, traveled to Portugal in 2004, only to be block by the Portuguese Navy. The Feminist Majority Foundation has been working with Women on Waves since its first trip to Ireland five years ago, providing security support through its National Clinic Access Project.
According to Women on Waves, between 20,000 and 40,000 illegal and unsafe abortions take place in Portugal each year. Said Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates about the referendum, “We have to end this blight of backstreet abortionsÉ It makes Portugal a backward country,” according to the Associated Press. If the legislators vote to allow the referendum, Portugal will vote on the measure in January.