Another Victory for Democracy: Date Set for Portugal’s Abortion Referendum

Andrea Lynch

It's official: on February 11, 2007, Portuguese citizens will vote on whether or not to make abortion legal without restriction within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Portugal is one of the few countries in Europe where abortion is illegal under most circumstances; currently, the procedure is legally available only in cases where a pregnant woman's life is at risk, or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or fetal malformation. Despite the restrictive laws, tens of thousands of Portuguese women seek illegal, unsafe abortions every year, and pro-choice organizations estimate that some 10,000 of them wind up in the hospital with complications. Worse, women who seek unsafe abortions face harsh prison sentences, and are subjected to the additional trauma of having their sentence read out loud during public and often televised trials. Inter Press Service has an excellent analysis of the current situation here.

It's official: on February 11, 2007, Portuguese citizens will vote on whether or not to make abortion legal without restriction within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Portugal is one of the few countries in Europe where abortion is illegal under most circumstances; currently, the procedure is legally available only in cases where a pregnant woman's life is at risk, or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or fetal malformation. Despite the restrictive laws, tens of thousands of Portuguese women seek illegal, unsafe abortions every year, and pro-choice organizations estimate that some 10,000 of them wind up in the hospital with complications. Worse, women who seek unsafe abortions face harsh prison sentences, and are subjected to the additional trauma of having their sentence read out loud during public and often televised trials. Inter Press Service has an excellent analysis of the current situation here.

The referendum, approved in October by the Portuguese parliament, has received backing from Prime Minister Jose Sócrates and President Aníbal Cavaco e Silva. Sócrates has called Portugal's unsafe abortion epidemic "a sign of a backward country," arguing that the referendum "is aimed at putting an end to the persecution of women." On agreeing to the referendum last week, Cavaco e Silva stated, "The fact that [unsafe abortion] is a problem that continues to foster a live debate in Portuguese society…is reason enough to call on citizens to express their opinion with their vote."

How refreshing it is that at least some politicians worldwide still have the moral courage to describe women's access to safe abortion as a matter of democratic urgency. It's a far cry from the parade of abortion-inspired moral cowardice currently passing for democracy in the Western Hemisphere – from Chile, where the congress recently voted to reject debate on a measure that would have legalized therapeutic abortion up to 12 weeks, to Nicaragua, where the National Assembly just banned therapeutic abortion in a pre-election scramble clearly intended to curry favor with the Catholic Church, to the United States, where a lame duck House, backed by a spineless Senate, will vote today on the loathsome Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, another purely political concoction that will accomplish little more than further fueling the culture wars. Since when did standing up for women's right to life, health, and dignity become political suicide?

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Australia’s Foreign Aid Funding For Abortion

Ramona Vijeyarasa

The Australian Government recently made a monumental decision to resume the use of its foreign aid funding for the provision of abortion services and information.

The Australian Government recently
made a monumental decision to resume the use of its foreign aid funding
for the provision of abortion services and information. Six months of parliamentary debate, which
many activists, including myself, followed closely, culminated in this
decision to reverse the 12-year long ban. Some have attributed the reform
to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Since his election to office in 2007,
Rudd has introduced a host of positive changes for the country and world,
including signing the Kyoto Protocol less than one month after being
sworn into office, making a formal apology to the "stolen generations"
in February 2008, and proposing greater recognition of LGBT rights in
Australia by announcing reforms to the legal recognition of same-sex
relations.  

However, the decision to overturn
the ban, imposed in 1996 by the previous conservative government, in
fact challenges the personal
beliefs
of Prime
Minister Rudd. Rudd said he had "long-standing conservative views"
on the issue and did not support the change. Rather, after extensive
consultation with parliamentary colleagues, Foreign
Minister Stephen Smith

made the decision to lift the ban: "I was left with the very distinct
impression that the substantial, if not the overwhelming majority of
the parliamentary members of the Labor Party believed that this was
also the correct outcome."  

Sarah
Hanson-Young, an Australian senator from the Australian Greens
, who was the youngest Australian woman
ever elected to parliament, noted how out of step Australia has been
with the international community. Although not an entirely accurate statement about the changes introduced by the Obama Administration, Hanson-Young stated: "Australia, until this morning,
was the last country who had these ridiculous, archaic, inhumane restrictions
placed on our aid funding and support. What we now see is Australia
has stepped up in line with Barack Obama, who in his very first week
as president moved to ensure that these restrictions would be lifted,"
she said. In the February Parliamentary sitting of the Australian Senate,
Senator Hanson-Young also moved for the Senate to recognize that an
estimated 34,000 mothers die in the region each year due to the lack
of maternal health care. 

Bob
McMullan, Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Development Assistance
, also recognized the potential significance
this decision will have for maternal health, "the greatest gap in
health services between the developed and developing world." Honing
in on the rights of women to decide the number and spacing of their
families, Jane
Singleton, chief executive officer of the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance
(ARHA),
also commented
on this reform. In Singleton’s opinion, "It will have huge impacts
on hundreds of thousands of women and their families who want to make
choices about the numbers of children they have and the spacing and
it will also free up funds for family planning generally." She also
highlighted that while these restrictions have been in place, Australia’s
funding for a whole range of family planning has diminished by 84 per
cent. Foreign Minister Smith has promised to reverse this decline in
aid for family planning organizations. As part of Australia’s commitment
to advancing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to improve
child and maternal health, the Government will also provide additional funding
of up to $15 million over four years

through UN agencies and NGOs for family planning and reproductive health
activities to help reduce maternal deaths.  

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The potential for this change
to save women’s lives and guarantee women their right to health is
enormous. AusAID, the Australian Government’s Overseas Aid Program,
funds a range of countries in Asia and the Pacific, with $AUS3.7 billion worth of official
development assistance planned for 2008-2009. I have previously drawn
the spotlight on East
Timor

and expressed my hope that a change in Australia’s foreign aid funding
requirements would help stop the 68,000 unsafe abortions that unnecessarily
take place every year, risking the lives of young Timorese women. However,
women all around the region, including those from some of Australia’s
biggest recipients like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Solomon
Islands, could now have the opportunity to access legal abortions, safely,
more affordably and be armed with the necessary information to do so.
This is particularly important in South Asia. Whilst more
than half of the world’s unsafe abortions take place in Asia (10.5 million),
more than one-third of these are in South Central Asia. According to Action Canada for
Population and Development (ACPD)
,
in the Asia region, excluding East Asia where safe abortion is widely
accessible, one unsafe abortion occurs for every 5 live births.

In Nepal, unfortunately one
of the smaller recipients of Australian Government aid (with an estimated $AUD8.2 million foreign aid to be
received from the Australian Government in the period 2008-09), unsafe
abortion causes 20 to 27 per cent of all maternal deaths. Given that nearly a quarter
of Nepalese women give birth before the age of 18 and over 50 percent
women give birth by the age of 20, the number of young women dying is
staggering. An increase in family planning funding will help to address
the low levels of education, including reproductive health education,
limited access to health services and the higher risks of complications
that exist for these some of the younger women, whose reproductive system
may not being fully developed in light of their age.  

Sexual and
reproductive health and rights groups have been waiting a long time
for this decision. One of the key outcomes of roundtable discussions held in 2006 on Australia’s
family planning aid was the realization that
unsafe abortion could not be left out of a comprehensive approach to
sexual and reproductive health programs in the region. Donor
money isn’t everything, but it certainly can have a huge impact on
countries that de-prioritize reproductive health. All recipients of
Australian funding can now freely use this money to arm women with the
information and services they need to make choices about their own lives,
hopefully shrinking the gap between the rights, health and choices of
women in the global north and south.

European Court Rules On Freedom of Expression in Portugal

Anna Wilkowska-Landowska

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Portugal had violated freedom of expression by prohibiting the ship Borndiep, which promoted the decriminalization of abortion, from entering Portuguese territorial waters.

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Portugal had violated freedom of expression guaranteed by the European Commission on Human Rights by prohibiting the ship Borndiep, which promoted the decriminalization of abortion, from entering Portuguese territorial waters. 

The applicants were three non-governmental organizations particularly active in promoting the debate about reproductive rights – Women on Waves, a Dutch foundation based in Amsterdam, and two Portuguese associations, Clube Safo and Não te Prives (Group for the Defense of Sexual Rights), based in Santarém and Coimbra (Portugal). Women on Waves’ mission is to prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human right to physical and mental autonomy. The organization charters ships to sail to countries where abortion is illegal. After sailing to international waters doctors aboard the ship can provide early medical abortions safely and legally. National penal legislation, including abortion laws, extends only to territorial waters; outside that 12-miles radius the ship is only beholden to the law of the country of its registration.

In 2004 Women on Waves chartered the ship Borndiep and sailed towards Portugal after being invited by the two other applicant associations to campaign in favor of the decriminalization of abortion. At the time Portugal was the only country within the EU that actively prosecuted women and doctors for illegal abortion. Meetings on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, family planning and the decriminalization of abortion were planned to take place on board from August 30 to September 12, 2004. But on August 27, 2004 a ministerial order banned the ship from entering Portuguese territorial waters on the basis of maritime law and Portuguese health laws. A Portuguese warship blocked the Borndiep’s entrance. On September 6, 2004 the Administrative Court rejected a request by the applicant associations for an order allowing the ship’s immediate entry. The authorities indicated that they thought, erroneously, that the Women on Waves ship would give Portuguese women access to forbidden abortion procedures and medicines.

The applicant associations tried to appeal against that decision but without success. They subsequently applied to the Supreme Administrative Court, which found that the matter in dispute was not of sufficient legal or social significance to justify its intervention. Women on Waves’ sources say that a number of demonstrations in support of the three associations took place in Portugal, attracting media attention.

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The organizations decided to lodge an application with the European Court of Human Rights on August 18, 2005. Almost four years later, the Court decided that there had been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The European Court concluded that the interference by the authorities violated Article 10, as it had been disproportionate to the aims pursued. The Court not only noted that nothing indicated that the NGOs had wanted to administer abortion medicines, but, furthermore, because the NGOs’ aim was to to inform people about reproductive health, the authorities should have respected their rights to hold sessions on the ship as they always had.  The Court also noted that the use of a war vessel in itself to stop the ship may have had a chilling effect on the work of Women on Waves.

While the Court acknowledged the legitimate aims pursued by the Portuguese authorities, as the "prevention of disorder and the protection of health, it stated that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness towards ideas that offended, shocked or disturbed were prerequisites for a ‘democratic society.’" It pointed out that the right to freedom of expression included the choice of the form in which ideas were conveyed, without unreasonable interference by the authorities. The Court considered that in this case, the restrictions imposed by the authorities had affected the substance of the ideas and information imparted. It noted that the choice of the ship for the events planned had been crucially important to the applicant associations and in line with the activities that Women on Waves had carried out for some time in many European states. The Court highlighted that the applicant associations had not trespassed on private land or publicly owned property, and it noted the lack of sufficiently strong evidence of any intention to deliberately breach Portuguese abortion legislation.

In early December 2004, only two months after the ship’s visit to Portugal, the Portuguese government dissolved. The Socialist Party won the elections in February 2005 with an overwhelming majority and promised to hold a national referendum on abortion law.  Portugal subsequently legalized abortion in February 2007, two and half year after the Women on Waves ship visited Portugal.

While the length and difficulty of this case may be disheartening, it marks a great change in Portuguese society.  When the last case involving dissemination of information on abortion was decided in 1992, it was a highly contentious case resulting in a divided court.  In contrast, this 2009 judgment was unanimous.