National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Portugal’s Voters Reject Attempt to Liberalize Abortion Law

Pro-Life efforts lead to upset despite media predictions on referendum

BY Greg Chesmore

July 12, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/12/98 at 1:00 PM


LISBON, Portugal—The pro-abortion victory party planned in Portugal for the end of June never happened. Abortion advocates and the media had predicted the nation's first-ever referendum would result in the liberalization of the country's abortion laws. When the votes were counted though, pro-lifers were the ones claiming victory.

Backed by Portugal's ruling Socialist Party, abortion advocates have been seeking to change Portugal's abortion law for the past 14 years. In February, lawmakers approved a bill relaxing the current restrictions on abortion, but pro-life forces successfully pushed for a national referendum of the issue. On June 28, Portuguese voters were asked whether the law should be changed to allow abortion on demand through the 10th week of pregnancy: 51% said “No.”

Abortion in Portugal is not illegal in all cases, however. Under existing law, abortion is allowed for certain medical situations and in cases of rape. The proposed change in the law would have removed those current restrictions.

Joao Araujo, a leader of the pro-life efforts in Portugal, told the Register that pro-life forces had expected to lose the vote.

“Nobody was expecting this,” said Araujo. “Every poll said we were going to lose. We never achieved more than 35% in a poll, and the day of the vote the main Portuguese television station predicted 59% yes and 41% no.”

The pro-life victory shocked political observers who had claimed for weeks that the referendum would pass. Immediately after the vote though, news reports attempted to discredit the vote by focusing on the high rate of abstentions. Of the nation's 8.5 million votes, only 32% braved the blazing-hot summer day to vote in the referendum. The turnout was below the 50% threshold necessary to make the vote legally binding on the Parliament.

However within a day of the vote, the leader of the Socialist party said he would not pursue a new abortion law for the rest of the session. Francisco Assis told reporters the “political conditions are not there for the process to continue.” The pro-abortion law's death after the referendum was yet another surprise for pro-life leaders.

“The Parliament was free to reject the result of the referendum since only 32% of the electors voted,” Araujo said, “but the Socialist Party decided to forget the law, thus it was a second victory inside the first one.”

For weeks before the national vote, pro-abortion and pro-life forces sponsored mass marches and nationwide media blitzes attempting to reach Portuguese citizens. With the vast majority of Portuguese claiming to be Catholics, the media spent much time focusing on the perceived division among Catholics on abortion.

According to Araujo, the Catholic Church's leadership in opposing the referendum led to some not so subtle attacks on the Church.

“In the United States there are many different religions, and many of them are against abortion, but Portugal is 99.1% Catholic. So here pro-life equals the Catholic Church,” he said. “The media were always looking for Catholics that were going to vote yes [pro-abortion]. They were interviewed everywhere—in Fatima and in the churches.”

Araujo said grassroots mobilization by pro-lifers achieved results. He said the pro-abortion “Yes for Tolerance” campaign was strongly supported by political parties, while the pro-life “No” campaign was led by what he called “anonymous people.” He said no national group formed to fight the referendum, but groups like Araujo's “Together for Life” formed in large cities such as Lisbon.

“We became known only because of this campaign and tomorrow nobody will remember us,” he said.

While the socialists have carried the pro-abortion banner in Portugal, the issue has been difficult even within their ranks. Prime Minister Antonio Gueterres, a practicing Catholic, publicly opposed the effort to liberalize abortion.

Father Frank Pavone, international director of Priests for Life and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said the Portuguese abortion battle is evidence of the global nature of the abortion controversy. He blamed the worldwide division about abortion on the efforts of groups like the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which seek to establish full access for various “reproductive health services”—including abortion.

“Many speak about the harm done by illegal abortion, and the myth is perpetuated that we can make abortion safe by legalizing it,” Father Pavone said. “I have said at international meetings here in Rome that we in the United States have plenty of evidence that legalizing abortion does not make it safe, and that evidence needs to be brought into the pro-life campaigns in various countries.”

The illegal abortion myth was a major focus of the Portuguese referendum debate. In the weeks before the vote, a group called the Portuguese Movement for the Social Emancipation of Women published a book documenting what they claimed were 200 “gruesome” stories of botched illegal abortions. The book received extensive media attention both in Portugal and abroad.

Father Pavone said the argument can be defused by focusing on the harm abortion does to women.

“In the consultation I had with the Portuguese pro-life efforts, I recommended a strategy of focusing on women's rights as a key reason not to legalize abortion,” he said. “Authentic feminism is pro-life and makes room for both mother and child.”

Pro-life leader Araujo said that the abortion law might be dead for now, he expects the battle to continue. Though the pro-abortion forces may not focus on liberalizing the nation's abortion laws soon, he expects a renewed battle regarding other life issues.

“I think that for the next few years they will forget the abortion question,” he said, “but the Parliament certainly will push the sex education and contraception [issues].”

The Portuguese victory, according to Araujo, became a reality due to the hard work of pro-lifers around the country. In the weeks before the vote, activists distributed brochures with photographs of a 10-week unborn baby to 4 million of Portugal's 10 million citizens. However, he credits the power of prayer with securing a miracle in Portugal.

“There was an enormous chain of prayer in more than 800 places around the country,” he said. “Everyone who worked in the campaign acknowledges that this is a real miracle.”

Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.