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Portugal is ready to decriminalise abortion

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39126.352176.DB (Published 15 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:332
  1. Tiago Villanueva
  1. Lisbon

    Portugal has taken a decisive step towards decriminalising abortion, after 59% of people who voted in a national referendum last week backed reforming the law so that abortion can be carried out until the 10th week of pregnancy in registered premises. Forty per cent of voters were against the proposal, but 56% of the eligible population of voters didn't vote at all, meaning that the result of the referendum is not binding.

    But Portugal's prime minister, José Sócrates, has stated publicly that a law decriminalising and regulating abortion will be introduced in the next few months. The percentage who voted in favour of reforming the abortion law represents a shift in opinion, as the “no” vote won by a very small margin in a previous referendum in 1998, although 70% of voters abstained.

    Portugal currently has very restrictive legislation on abortion, similar to the Republic of Ireland, Poland, and Malta. It is the only country in Europe where women who consent to having an abortion and where health professionals who perform an abortion, with or without a woman's consent, can be prosecuted. Several cases have been brought in recent years, and a number of women and doctors and nurses have been convicted and jailed under the abortion legislation.

    Abortion was completely prohibited in Portugal until a law was passed in 1984—revised in 1997—allowing abortion to be carried out up to the 12th week of pregnancy in cases where continuing the pregnancy could be life threatening or risk severe physical or mental injury to the woman. Abortion can be performed up to the 16th week where to continue pregnancy would represent “a crime against the woman's freedom and sexual self determination” and up to the 24th week in cases of severe disease of the fetus or congenital malformation.

    In a statement published in January this year the Portuguese Association of Family Planning argued, “The Portuguese law has been subject to a very restrictive interpretation by Portuguese public hospitals, many of which don't comply with the legislation. This interpretation and the non-compliance with the law are therefore not ensuring the response needed in most situations of unwanted pregnancy . . . This absence of response has been responsible for the existence of a clandestine, speculative, and dangerous abortion business. It has also led to a growing number of Portuguese women going to clinics in other countries to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy. In recent years the use of abortive treatment without medical supervision has also increased very significantly. Consequently, abortion is still one of the main causes of maternal death and leads to several thousands of hospital admissions of women with retained or incomplete abortion or with complications resulting from clandestine abortion.”

    Ana Campos, head of the maternal and fetal department of Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital in Lisbon, Portugal's largest maternity hospital, has said in the Portuguese press, “The Portuguese National Health Service already has capacity to cope with the practice of abortions up to the 10th week of pregnancy.”

    She added, “It is necessary to establish licences [for public hospitals] to carry out abortions up to the 10th week of pregnancy, as well as setting the prices and hygiene conditions in the clinics, as private medicine will always be an option for some women.”