Portugal´s Abortion Law Under Attack as Trial Opens

17 Women Could Face 3-Year Jail Terms

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LISBON, Portugal, OCT. 21, 2001 (Zenit.org).- In the biggest trial of its kind in years, 17 Portuguese women face jail sentences of up to three years for illegal abortions.

The trial which opened near Porto last week, has been criticized by women´s groups, family planning organizations and left-wing members of Parliament, the Independent of London reported. The critics of the trial claim it exposes Portugal´s abortion law as «astonishing and immoral» because it encourages back-street clinics.

The chorus of calls for the demolition of one of Europe´s toughest abortion laws could put the survival of Antonio Guterres´ Socialist government at risk. His parliamentary majority could collapse if just one left-wing member leaves.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in Portuguese society. It not only crosses party lines but also lays bare the country´s deep gulf between the comparatively wealthy south and the impoverished north, where Catholic bishops still exert huge influence.

Black-clad members of the Right to Choose platform gathered Friday before an improvised courtroom in a sports hall in the town of Maia, near Porto in northern Portugal where the trial is being held, carrying placards that read: «Abortion: the law is a crime.»

Abortion is legal in Portugal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in cases of malformation of the unborn child, rape or serious risk to the physical and psychological health of the woman. Abortions can be done only in government-authorized clinics.

Most of the accused say they aborted their children for economic, psychological or personal reasons.

The chief accused is Maria do Ceu Ribeiro, a nurse charged with organizing an illegal abortion ring of pharmacists, doctors, nurses and taxi-drivers from her house. She is accused of stealing instruments, tranquilizers, antibiotics and relaxants from the hospital where she worked.

Ceu Ribeiro denies the charges. «I never carried out abortions. I am completely against abortion,» she told the court. Her clients were «full of fears» having been mistreated and humiliated in hospitals. Most of them had led «a promiscuous life.»

She added: «We carried out caring work, which went no further than looking after them and helping them abandon unhealthy behavior.» Altogether, 43 people are on trial.

Duarte Vilar, head of Portugal´s Family Planning Association, condemned the trial as «absolutely astonishing» and said it «lays bare the utter hypocrisy that surrounds the abortion issue in Portugal.» The law «permits clandestine abortion rings and sends to prison women who have them.»

There are thousands of clandestine abortions every year in unauthorized, unhygienic conditions. Many Portuguese travel to Spain for abortions.

The obstacles for those seeking a legal abortion are demonstrated by Portugal´s official statistics, which say 491 took place in 1999. Health workers put the true number nearer 40,000.

The law has tended to be interpreted loosely. In 1998 and 1999 there were 12 anti-abortion trials, and eight women were convicted.

An attempt at liberalization in 1998 came to nothing when Guterres, a Catholic, stood firm against implementing a draft law allowing abortion on demand up to 10 weeks. He opted for a referendum and urged people to vote as their conscience dictated, adding that he personally would vote «no.» The measure was defeated by 51.9%.

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