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Portugal: A Close Shave

JCWillke   |   July 01, 1997

Back in 1984, the Parliament in Portugal legalized abortion – but in only narrow circumstances. It allowed it when a woman’s health was at “serious risk”, until 12 weeks for rape pregnancies, and until 16 weeks for fetal handicap. Nothing has changed since that time except that other Western European nations progressively passed more permissive laws.

But things bubbled up this past spring. The members of the ruling Socialist Party, which holds 122 seats in the 230-seat Parliament, were split on the issue. Prime Minister Antonio Guterres was for no change. The Communists with 15 votes and the Greens with 2 favored change. The main opposition Party, the Social Democrats, was split.

As usual, the pro-abortion side pumped up imagined numbers of illegal abortions and put forth the arguments that our readers are familiar with. Among other arguments, they claimed that there were 16,000 illegal abortions committed annually – this without any visible proof of that number.

Portugal has remained a very Catholic country compared with the rest of Western Europe. Within it is the Village of Fatima which is known world-wide as the site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary during World War I. Portugal has a number of pro-life groups, including several crisis pregnancy centers. A fair number of these are attached to the Catholic Church which has considerable influence in that small country.

But the challenge came, and after a stormy 8-hour debate, the lawmakers voted on a proposal that would have allowed unrestricted abortions. This was narrowly defeated by a vote of 112 to 111. During this time, both pro-abortion and pro-life activists were demonstrating outside of the Parliament. The pro-abortion side burned an effigy of the Pope, while pro-life campaigners of all ages, many with babies, gathered outside of a Lisbon church for a silent march on Parliament.

A second bill was then submitted which passed 155 to 46. This extended the age for aborting for fetal handicap, from the previous 16 to 24 weeks. Abortions for assault rape pregnancies were advanced from the 12th to the 14th week.

International Right to Life had sent a supply of pro-life materials to Portugal’s pro-life activist groups. As its president, I and my wife Barbara were able to visit Lisbon a short time later. We landed amidst considerable agitation to reopen the issue and again vote on a much more radical bill. Given only a few weeks notice, the pro-life groups quickly organized a meeting of pro-life leaders. A week later, they had scheduled for us a public meeting to which many people had been invited. By the time we arrived, it had expanded to fill the major auditorium at the University of Lisbon, a meeting which proved immensely fruitful. Along with other leaders, we presented a 3 1/2-hour session to an overflow audience, and a great deal of literature was distributed.

We feel that our visit will bear substantial fruit, particularly in helping to unify and strengthen the pro-life organizations there, both secular and church-related. Plans are underway for considerably more pro-life activity in the future. We hope the pro-life dike will hold.

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