Mon, Feb 12, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Portugal heads to polls for abortion law referendum


Portugal headed to the polls yesterday for a second referendum in less than a decade on its abortion law, one of Europe's strictest, with surveys indicating voters would back legalization.

Between 52 and 62 percent of voters said they backed a government proposal that abortion be legal for all women until the 10th week of pregnancy, five polls published in national newspapers on Friday said.

But the surveys suggested the abstention rate could run as high as 45 percent which, pollsters cautioned, makes it hard to predict the outcome.

More than half of Portugal's registered voters need to cast ballots for the results of a referendum to be binding.

If low turnout voids the outcome of the referendum but the "yes" camp collects more votes than the "no" side, the Socialist government has said it will use its majority in parliament to alter the abortion law.

Abortion is currently allowed in the predominantly Catholic country only until the 12th week of pregnancy in cases of rape, a malformed fetus or if the woman's well-being is in danger.

Within the 27-nation EU only Ireland, Malta and Poland have abortion laws that are similar or even more restrictive.

In a referendum held in 1998 voters supported upholding the existing abortion law by 51 percent to 49 percent, but the result was declared void as nearly seven out of 10 voters stayed away.

Opposition to changes to the law has been led by the influential Catholic Church, which has argued the government should do more to help women to have children.

Portugal's top cleric, Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo, has said repeatedly that Catholics must oppose abortion.

But in recent years several trials of women charged with illegally terminating their pregnancies have generated widespread public sympathy that may boost support for liberalization.

Women can be jailed for up to three years for having an illegal abortion while those who perform them face up to eight years behind bars.

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