TV & Radio
February 12, 2007
Low Turnout Undercuts Portugal Vote on Abortion
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
The New York Times
LISBON, Feb. 11 — Portugal voted decisively in a referendum on Sunday to liberalize its restrictive abortion law, but the result was not considered valid because of low voter turnout.
Still, Prime Minister José Sócrates, a Socialist who supported the liberalization, declared victory and said he would ask Parliament, where his party enjoys a comfortable majority, to change the law.
“The people spoke with a clear voice,” Mr. Sócrates said in televised remarks after the polls closed. He added: “The law now will be discussed and approved in Parliament. Our interest is to fight clandestine abortion and we have to produce a law that respects the result of the referendum.”
The vote was 59.25 percent in favor and 40.75 percent opposed, with a turnout of slightly less than 44 percent of the 8.8 million eligible voters.
At least 50 percent of eligible voters needed to cast ballots for the results to be legally binding.
In many urban centers, the margin in favor of changing the law was much higher than at the national level. In Lisbon, for example, 71.5 percent voted in favor, 28.5 percent opposed; in Faro, in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, 73.6 percent were in favor, 26.4 percent opposed.
Supporters and opponents of abortion, political commentators and pollsters attributed the lack of voter participation to the episodically rainy weather, voter apathy and even ignorance.
“Referendums, unlike regular elections, often deal with complicated issues, and people who are not politically motivated or informed have a problem making the decision to vote,” Pedro Magalhães, a pollster at Catholic University of Lisbon, said on state-run RTP1 television.
Other commentators explained that the political elite misread popular opinion in assuming that a broad range of people would declare their position at the polls.
“There are two Portugals, the Portugal of the elite — politicians, newspapers and television — and the Portugal of the people,” said João Marcelino, director of the mass-circulation daily tabloid Correio da Manhã. “The people are more concerned about unemployment, their salaries, the health system. The real country doesn’t consider the issue of abortion important.”
Despite the low turnout, supporters of abortion rights were jubilant.
“Finally after thirty years of democracy in Portugal we now can pass a law that will not treat women as criminals,” said Maria Antónia Santos, a Socialist deputy. “This is the first step toward eliminating the reality of backstreet abortions. Now it’s our responsibility to pass a good law.”
Opponents of a change in the law said that the referendum’s failure to attract at least half the electorate meant that Mr. Sócrates was wrong to call for a change in the law.
“Sócrates will be responsible for this sad chapter in Portugal’s history for insisting on a political move that has split Portuguese society,” José Ribeiro e Castro, head of the center-right Partido Popular, said in televised remarks. He added that the low voter turnout confirmed that for the Portuguese, abortion “was not a critical issue.”
A similar referendum in 1998 took place on a sunny Sunday in June, when many Portuguese were at the beach. Only 32 percent of the electorate turned up at the polls, voting by a razor-thin margin to retain the existing law. That result was declared invalid and the restrictive 1984 law remained unchanged.
In the latest referendum, both supporters and opponents of abortion, including the Catholic Church, had urged voters to cast ballots. The referendum asked voters whether they approved legalizing abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy and would have allowed women to openly seek medical support from the state-run health system.
During the day, clerics used their sermons at Sunday Mass in many parishes throughout this overwhelmingly Catholic country to remind parishioners of their duty to vote — and to vote no.
“Before baptism a life already exists that must be appreciated divinely as a gift from the creator,” said Rev. Lourenço Sebastião Dias during his sermon in a Lisbon church that was broadcast on state-run RDP radio.
Mr. Sócrates had campaigned in favor of a change in the law, one of the most restrictive in the 25-nation European Union.
He had said the country’s identity was at stake in the referendum. “The choice placed before Portugal is whether it resigns itself to staying in the group of the most conservative countries or if it embraces modernity,” he said Thursday.
Portugal is also the only European Union member that has put on trial women who undergo illegal abortions, the health care providers who perform them and even “accomplices” like husbands or family members who might accompany them to backstreet abortionists.
The current law in Portugal allows abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy in case of “mental and physical risk,” until 16 weeks in case of rape, until 24 weeks in case of a malformed fetus and at any time if the woman’s life is in danger. It imposes prison sentences of up to three years for a woman who undergoes an illegal abortion and up to eight years for the person who illegally performs it.