It was difficult and depressing enough for a middle-aged widow in Portugal who was unable to have a normal sex life after botched surgery.
However, when one of Portugal’s highest courts recently decided to reduce the compensation she had been awarded, on the grounds that sex was less important after 50, it was the kind of insult added to injury that ignited an outrage that was not hers alone.
“This is an example of how the highest levels of Portuguese justice, besides being disconnected from society, insist and persist in denying the most basic rights of women that they should protect,” Portuguese Women’s Studies Association vice president Rosa Monteiro said.
The widow in question, Maria, now 69, is a former house cleaner who has battled with the courts for nearly 20 years. She did not wish to reveal her full name because “she feels huge shame and also feels diminished as a woman,” said her lawyer, Vitor Manuel Parente Ribeiro.
He said that his client had undergone surgery in 1995 at the state-run Alfredo da Costa Maternity Clinic in Lisbon to remove glands that secrete fluid for lubrication. The work was done on the advice of a doctor there, who “told her it would be an easy procedure, and she would go home on the same day.”
However, after doctors mistakenly cut a nerve, Maria was left incontinent and unable to have sex without severe pain. She won a decade-long court battle, but the clinic appealed.
On Oct. 9, the ruling finally came. Portugal’s Supreme Administrative Court reduced her compensation to 111,000 euros (US$137,700) from 172,000 euros. Among its arguments, the court’s panel of three judges, including one woman, said Maria was a mother of two children and 50 years old at the time of the surgery, an age when sex “does not have the importance that it had at younger ages.”
Some lawyers said the latest ruling was not only degrading for a woman whose life had been ruined by bad surgery, but also violated Portugal’s legal and constitutional guarantees that sexual orientation and age will not be a barrier to justice.
Joao Gama, a professor of law at the Catholic University in Lisbon, said the ruling reflected both “a sexist and socio-economic prejudice” among the judiciary toward “a housekeeper’s sex life.”
In contrast, he argued, the Supreme Court recently awarded 100,000 euros to a 55-year-old man who suffered erection problems after his prostate was unnecessarily removed and who was described as financially well-off in the ruling.
“My point is that courts value highly the sex lives of old people if they are male and wealthy,” Gama said.
Parente Ribeiro said he planned to bring new legal action against the Portuguese state for delaying the case and to appeal the ruling before the European Court of Human Rights.
“I cannot explain such a decision,” he said.
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