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Decriminalisation of abortion: 10 years after YES won the referendum
“This victory reflects the commitment of social movements and political organisations, but also the involvement of each and every citizen, who despite their differences, gave a calm and serious contribution to this debate that has touched all of our society in recent weeks”. These words were said on the night of February 11th 2007 by Maria José Alves, the doctor who spoke on behalf of the YES campaign after their victory in the referendum for the decriminalisation of abortion on request.
The night of February 11th was the culmination of decades of fighting for women to have the power to make decisions about their own bodies and lives. The YES campaign gathered a wide range of organisations, groups, parties and people who managed to mobilise society in a dynamic campaign. The referendum took place almost nine years after the 1998 referendum on a new abortion law, and in the second referendum one million more people voted than in the first. With 59,25% of the votes, Portuguese society expressed a clear desire for change.
“Finally, the basis for all women to have equal access to medical support has been created. Finally, women will be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve, and finally, Portugal can join the other countries in the Western world in respecting and establishing human rights for all. From today onwards, the door has been opened for the creation of a fairer Portugal, of a more humane and more compassionate country”, concluded Maria José Alves.
From prison to decriminalisation
Up until 2007, having an abortion was a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Between 1998 and 2007, 223 illegal cases of abortion were investigated. In a country where one in every seven women said they had had an abortion, the hypocrisy of those in support of the NO campaign, who claimed that the law existed only to dissuade women, became clear.
Since abortion was decriminalised, the number of abortions carried out has been decreasing. Most women who have one do so only once and in safe a condition, which has led to the eradication of maternal death during abortions.
From 2008 to 2014, the number of abortions decreased by 10% and Portugal is below the European average for the total amount of abortions performed. Portugal has the lowest gestational limit to interrupt a pregnancy. In Spain, France, Belgium and Germany, abortions can take place up until 14 weeks of pregnancy, in Portugal it is only permitted in the first 10 weeks.