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Portugal Set to Legalize Abortions

Portugal’s parliament has approved a bill to legalize abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, after a clear majority of Portuguese voted for that proposal in a referendum in February.   The bill must go through a process of presidential ratification before it officially becomes law, a process that could take several months.1

Currently, Portugal is one of the few European Union countries with strict abortion laws.  Whereas in most European countries women can legally request abortions until sometime between the 12th and 24th week of pregnancy, abortions in Portugal are only allowed in cases of rape, threat to the mother’s health, or serious fetal abnormality.2   It is also the only country to attach a prison sentence of up to three years for women found guilty of having an abortion.  In extreme cases, abortion trials are televised.3  

Because of Portugal’s highly restrictive law, thousands of women—most of whom are between the ages of 19 and 31—are believed to cross the border to Spain, where abortion is legal until the 12th week; others resort to illegal abortions.4   It is estimated that about 20,000 clandestine abortions take place in Portugal annually.5

On Sunday, February 11, voters in Portugal considered a referendum that would have legalized all abortions at registered health centers until the 10th week of pregnancy as well as decriminalized abortions.  Although over 60% of those who participated in the referendum voted “yes,” the overall voter turnout was less than the 50 percent required to change the current law.   A previous attempt to change the law in 1998 was narrowly defeated, and had less voter turnout. Advocates of the referendum note, however, that much progress has been achieved in changing public opinion in favor of overturning the current law. 

Following the referendum, Portugal’s prime minister, Jose Socrates, promised to introduce legislation to parliament to formally change the abortion law.6  He explained, “Our interest is to fight clandestine abortion and we have to produce a law that respects the results of the referendum.”7  Only one party within the Portuguese parliament openly opposed the legislation.  Many of the other party leaders vowed to work with Sócrates to create “balanced” legislation; others called the vote a “clear expression of tolerance and an important victory for modernity.”8 

Women’s rights and citizens groups jubilated, saying they have waited three decades for full rights for women.  Professor Manuela Tavares, one of the leading women’s rights activists for 32 years remarked, “It took just one word, the one expressed on Sunday, to put an end to the injustices and humiliations suffered by more than half of the Portuguese population, who are women.”9   


  1. “Portugal: Abortion reform Approved,”, 9 March 2007, accessed 12 March 2007,  <>.
  2. Mario de Queiroz, “Voters to Decide on Legal Abortion in Referendum,” Inter Press Service News Agency , 19 October 2007, accessed 20 February 2007 <>.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Mario de Queiroz, “Legal Abortion after Decades of Struggle,” Inter Press Service News Agency , 12 February 2007, accessed 20 February 2007 <>.
  6. “Portugal will legalise abortion,” BBC News, 12 February 2007, accessed 20 February 2007
  7. “Portugal will legalise abortion,” BBC News, 12 February 2007, accessed 20 February 2007
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid.