The referendum on abortion last Sunday was the second national vote on the issue. The question put was the same as in 1998 – “Do you agree with decriminalising abortion when requested by women, up to 10 weeks into pregnancy, and performed in an authorised clinic?”
Some 44 percent of the electorate voted, as against 32 percent in 1998, with 59 percent voting yes. There is now no doubt that the article of the penal code which criminalises abortion – with the threat of up to three years in jail – will be eliminated.
Backstreet abortion will not stop overnight, but decriminalisation is a first step towards making it possible for women in Portugal to access safe abortion on our national health service.
This victory was won through active campaigning by several pro-choice groups who worked together while focusing on their own specific areas of concern.
Doctors for Choice gave press conferences reporting cases of women who died in hospital as a consequence of a backstreet abortion.
Catholics for Choice distributed a letter from believers to other believers stating why they would vote yes – thereby going against the mainstream of the Catholic church’s hierarchy.
Young People for Yes organised debates in schools, leafleting at factories and street theatre. The campaign was thoroughly multicoloured.
As for the political parties, only the right wing Christian Democrats announced that they would call for a no vote.
The leader of the liberal PSD played a prominent role in the no campaign, though many PSD MPs and most of its youth wing were involved in the pro-choice movements.
The ruling Socialist Party committed itself to the pro?choice camp, with prime minister José Sócrates making personal appeals for a yes vote.
The Left Bloc had an extraordinary campaign – we launched the idea of a new referendum three years ago, and in parliament last October we voted for the Socialist proposal for a new referendum.
The Communist Party, in contrast, voted against, arguing that the issue should be resolved in parliament.
We campaigned across the country, but we paid special attention to districts where the no vote had won in 1998. We also focused our campaign around the idea that it was intolerable for women to be prosecuted and put on trial.
That was the argument that the no camp could not answer – although last week they tried proposing that while women should not be penalised for having abortions, abortion should remain a crime!
For all those women and men who took part in the yes campaign, Sunday was an unforgettable day. We know we were part of a deep change and we are proud of it. Welcome to the 21st century, Portugal.