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global | REPORTS

When Losing Means Winning
Portugal is finally ready to legalize abortion

At Los Arcos, the receptionist answers the phone, “Bom dia.” That would be unremarkable if this abortion clinic were in Lisbon, but Los Arcos is in Badajoz, Spain. Yet the receptionist prefers the Portuguese greeting because approximately 70 percent of the clinic’s patients come from the neighboring country, where abortion remains illegal—but not for long.

In February, 59.25 percent of voters cast ballots for decriminalizing abortion in Portugal, but because only 40 percent of eligible voters turned out, the decision is not legally binding (it required 50 percent). Still, Prime Minister José Socrates quickly promised to bring the proposal before Parliament, where his Socialist party has a clear majority.

A similar referendum in 1998 failed by less than one point, with an even smaller voter turnout. This time, pro-choice organizations mounted massive campaigns to turn out the “yes” vote in the heavily Roman Catholic country.

An estimated 20,000 Portuguese women undergo illegal abortions each year, and about 9,000 more—mostly middle-class women—cross into Spain to clinics like Los Arcos. Since 2002, 40 women have been found guilty of obtaining abortions, subjected to prison sentences of up to three years.

On paper, the current Portuguese law is not so different from its Spanish counterpart. Both allow abortion only in cases of rape, fetal deformity, or threat to the physical or mental health of the woman. The difference is in practice: Doctors in Spain consider a woman’s socioeconomic circumstances in assessing psychological risk; Portuguese doctors largely have not. And whereas in Spain there are hundreds of private abortion clinics, in Portugal there were none—at least legal ones—although Los Arcos planned to open a Lisbon branch in March.

More often than not, Portuguese hospitals refuse to perform abortions. “A doctor may refer a woman because of risk to her mental health,” explains psychologist Cecilia Costa of Médicos Pela Escolha (Doctors for Choice), “but when she gets to the hospital, they can demand a team of their own doctors approve it as well.”

Many physicians support changing the law, but Portugal’s medical code of ethics, which dates to 1885, prohibits doctors from performing abortions. Even after the 1984 law specified cases in which abortion was justified, the most important medical association, Ordem dos Médicos, prohibited members from performing the procedure.

“There’s a double morality,” says Yolanda Hernández, director of the Los Arcos clinic. “Doctors will protest abortion in public, then perform them secretly.” (The money is the draw—an illegal abortion in Portugal costs up to 1,000 euros, at Los Arcos 450.) Not much longer. In televised remarks the night of the referendum, Prime Minister Socrates declared victory, announcing, “The people have spoken with a clear voice.” And in March, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion, without restrictions, up until the 10th week of pregnancy. The measure must be signed by President Cavaco Silva and published in official records before it can become law—a process expected to take several months.

RIDING THE WAVES
If there was one moment in recent years that catalyzed Portuguese feminists’ struggle for abortion rights, it was when Women on Waves ran into a blockade by the Portuguese Navy.

In 2004, the Netherlands-based nonprofit—founded by physician Rebecca Gomperts and dedicated to preventing unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions—sent their small ship, Borndiep, toward Portuguese waters, outfitted with an onboard abortion clinic. As it had in previous visits to Ireland and Poland, the group offered to take women aboard and provide abortions while sailing in international waters. But this time, the Borndiep’s presence was deemed a threat to national security, and the ship was blocked from entering national waters by two Portuguese warships. Nonetheless, the campaign received tremendous press coverage, inspiring new volunteers to join the abortion-rights effort.

Says Ana Cristina Santos, a Portuguese sociologist and activist, “I honestly believe [the abortion referendum’s positive outcome] was only possible thanks to the big, big waves we made in our 2004 campaign.”