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Portuguese court acquits two women of illegal abortion charges
AFP - Mon Jul 11, 3:20 PM ET
Pro-choice demonstrators show signs demanding changes to the actual law that forbids abortion, outside the court in Setubal, Portugal, 31 March 2005. A court acquitted two women charged with violating the staunchly Roman Catholic nation's rules against abortion after a year-long trial(AFP/File/Francisco Leong)
LISBON (AFP) - A court in Portugal acquitted two women charged with violating the staunchly Roman Catholic nation's strict rules against abortion after a year-long trial due to lack of evidence.
The case renewed debate in the country over its abortion laws, which are among the most restrictive in Europe, and fueled pressure on the government to go ahead with a promised referendum to liberalize the practice.
Abortion is illegal in Portugal except when the mother's life is in danger or in certain specified conditions, such as the risk of damage to physical or mental health, sexual violence or possible congenital deformity.
If convicted the two women had faced a jail sentence of up to three years.
A nurse who is accused of carrying out the abortions at her residence in the industrial city of Setubal, located 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Lisbon, is being tried separately.
Most trials of women accused of having had an abortion held in recent years have resulted in acquittals, with judges usually invoking insufficient evidence for their ruling.
Both public prosecutors and the defence had asked the court for an acquittal, with defence lawyers arguing there was not enough evidence for a conviction after the court ruled that police wiretap evidence was invalid.
Pro-abortion activists welcomed the ruling but said the trial humiliated the two women and underscored the need for changes to the law.
"As long as there are trials like this, women are being subjected to terror," said lawmaker Odete Santos of the Communist Party who acted as a defence lawyer for one of the two women.
The case dates back to 1999 when police charged the two women with paying the nurse around 400 euros (480 dollars) each to have an abortion.
A police search of the home of the nurse found equipment which could be used to carry out abortions.
Last month Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who took office in March, said he would like to go ahead with a campaign promise to hold a fresh vote on the nation's abortion law later this year.
A 1998 referendum marked by low voter turnout narrowly defeated a proposal to allow abortion on demand up to 10 weeks into pregnancy.
Family planning agencies estimate between about 20,000 and 40,000 back-alley abortions are carried out each year in Portugal, often in dangerous conditions.
Thousands more women go abroad each year to terminate unwanted pregnancies.