Behind the Scenes of the
Portuguese Abortion Referendum
by John Andrade, The Fatima Crusader
correspondent in Portugal
As a predominantly Catholic country, Portugal has traditionally opposed abortion, much to its current politicians’ embarrassment, but the European Union decided long ago to liberalize it, and all member countries must comply with its directives. When the Socialist Party took power in a landslide victory in 2005, its leader José Socrates, now the Prime Minister, promised broad reforms, which included a “modernization” of the abortion law in order to bring it in line with current European Union legislation.
At that time, abortion was allowed in Portugal only in three specific circumstances: in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if the mother’s health was considered to be at risk, or in the first 16 weeks if the pregnancy was caused by rape, or with no time restrictions if it were deemed necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life. But Prime Minister José Socrates insisted that abortion should be allowed on demand within the first ten weeks of pregnancy, and called for a referendum as an excuse to implement his plan. He decided to repeat the 1998 referendum, in which the pro-abortion lobby had suffered a clear defeat; but this time he would make sure that would not happen again. It is now known that he had been under pressure for months from the biggest Spanish abortion clinics, which is not surprising, because, according to the press, the abortion business in Portugal will bring in about 9 million euros a year to the abortionists — and that is a conservative estimate.
A date was set for the referendum: February 11, a Sunday. The interested parties had less than two months to prepare their campaigns.
In order to secure a victory, Prime Minister Socrates and his key Ministers actively campaigned to have abortion liberalized, using the full resources of the Government and giving frequent interviews on television and in the national press, publicity on a scale which the pro-life campaigners could never match.
At the same time, the Catholic Church, which had had a prominent role in defeating the abortionists in the 1998 referendum, declared that it would not become involved this time. Cardinal Patriarch José Policarpo went so far as to advise priests that “Eucharistic celebrations are not the place to campaign”. It was no secret that he favored the liberalization of abortion; he even told the press that the abortion law “had a certain logic to it”. Dom Ilídio Leandro, Bishop of Viseu, who was thought to be more or less moderate, publicly stated that he was inclined to vote “Yes”, adding that he was “in favor of a language of dialogue” and that he respected “people who think in a different way”. And all television channels and the national newspapers presented interviews with priests who favored the “Yes”.
Resistance to the liberalization of abortion was thus solely in the hands of the lay people, and they did organize themselves as best they could and campaigned vigorously. The Fatima Center also entered the campaign; it printed and distributed over 600,000 (six hundred thousand) copies of the Open Letter (see text on page 17 of this issue). It was also published in a major weekly newspaper. Where the Fatima Center had sent its 600,000 copies, was mostly in the North of Portugal. This was done at a cost of about $50,000US and where our Open Letter was sent, the majority of the vote was for NO, the correct vote of the Catholic conscience. Reader feedback was overwhelmingly positive among the laity.
Fearing the possibility of a defeat, which would be catastrophic to Socrates’ Government, the abortionists changed tactics, and claimed that the referendum was not aimed at liberalizing abortion; it was only meant to spare women the humiliation of being prosecuted for having had an abortion. And the lay people in charge of the pro-life campaign naively reacted by stating that, if they won, they would change the law in such a way as to avoid such “humiliation” — thereby making many people think that it wouldn’t really matter if they voted “Yes” or “No”, as the result would be practically the same.
February 11 came and there were few doubts that those in favor of abortion would win. Not surprisingly, turnout was lower than expected. Only 43.6 per cent voted, a total of 3,851,613 citizens. 59.25 per cent of them voted “Yes”, and 40.75 per cent voted “No”.
Under Portuguese law, more than 50 per cent of the registered voters must participate in a referendum to make it valid; otherwise its result will not be binding. Many people thought that the only chance to defeat the abortionists would be to abstain from voting. They were wrong.
Prime Minister Socrates said that he would still submit to Parliament the abortion bill he proposed, and he would personally follow up all proceedings so as to have it enacted as a law as soon as possible. Opposition leader Luís Marques Mendes, who had supported the pro-life campaign, was quick in stating that he would not stand in the way of Socrates’ abortion bill. “Even though the result is not binding, we believe it should be respected, in the interests of democracy”, he added.
All the Portuguese Episcopal Conference had to say about the pro-abortion victory was this, made public by spokesman Bishop Carlos Azevedo: “What happened was that the values defended by the Church are not very highly esteemed in Portuguese society at present.” A major daily newspaper, the Diário de Notícias, was more perceptive: “It was a great defeat for the Catholic Church.”
God’s displeasure with the referendum was made manifest to all. On the morning of the following day, February 12, an earthquake registering 6.0 on the Richter scale was felt in Southern Portugal, where the “Yes” obtained the highest majorities. It was hardly noticeable in the Northern districts, where the “No” had won.