Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Abortion rights under attack in Ireland and Portugal

IRELAND AND Portugal share the dubious honour of having the most restrictive abortion rights in the European Union. In these countries abortion is illegal on all but the narrowest grounds: where the life of the woman is in danger or if she will suffer permanent harm to her health if the pregnancy continues. For different reasons, the issue of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to end her pregnancy has come to the fore recently in both countries.

The Irish government has called another referendum on abortion (the fourth in twenty years) in an attempt to push through even further restrictions. It wants to overturn, ‘by popular demand’, a 1992 ruling of the Supreme Court that made it technically legal to carry out an abortion in Ireland where the life of the woman (or, in that particular case, a 14-year-old girl) was in danger from suicide risk. In practise, no doctor in Ireland would dare to carry out this operation, but a Health Board could assist a minor in its care to travel to Britain for an abortion.

If the government gets the result it wants, Ireland will become the only country in the EU where the risk of suicide arising from a crisis pregnancy will be explicitly ruled out as a ground for abortion. In addition, under the new proposals a woman attempting to self-abort and anyone who helps her would be liable to a jail sentence of up to twelve years.

The Socialist Party in the Republic of Ireland is campaigning for a No vote in the referendum and is affiliated to the broad-based, pro-choice Alliance for a No Vote (ANV). The ANV highlights the hypocrisy of the government and the Catholic Church, which maintains the illusion that abortion does not happen. Yet every year around 7,000 Irish women travel to Britain for this purpose alone. This causes financial hardship especially to working-class women and, because of the extra cost and practical difficulties of travelling abroad, Irish women have a very high rate of late abortions.

The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, who has been pushing for the referendum since 1997, will no doubt have followed with interest the recent court case in Portugal. This ended with a hospital nurse, Maria do Ceu Ribeiro, being jailed for eight-and-a-half years for performing illegal abortions at a clandestine clinic set up in her home.

Portugal held its own referendum in 1998 when a new law was proposed allowing abortion on request in the first ten weeks of pregnancy. Following intensive campaigning by the Catholic Church, so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and the ‘Socialist’ prime minister, António Guterres (himself a devout Catholic), a narrow majority (51.2%) voted, on a 32% turnout, to keep the laws as they are.

The court case, which took place in January, has been big news in Portugal. A total of 49 people were on trial in Maia, a small town in the North of the country. In addition to Ribeiro, 17 other women were in the dock accused of having abortions at the clinic. Local doctors and pharmacists were charged with referring women to the clinic and even taxi drivers faced possible jail sentences for providing transport. In the end, one of the women, 21-year-old Sandra Cordosa, and six ‘collaborators’ were found guilty and ordered to pay fines or face jail. The rest were acquitted for lack of evidence.

The trial, which was conducted by three judges without a jury, has provoked widespread anger amongst pro-choice and women’s groups in Portugal and has exposed the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and the state. All the women in the dock for using the clinic are from the poor rural areas and working-class districts nearby. They could not afford to travel to Spain or to a luxury clinic in Oporto, where a doctor performs abortions for wealthier women while local authorities look the other way. In fact, the women were caught because they could not even afford the prices at Ribeiro’s clinic and had left wedding rings and other jewellery as surety with the nurse while they tried to scrape together the money to pay.

Although there were only 574 legal abortions in Portugal in 2001, the Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that annually between 20,000 and 40,000 women have illegal abortions and that 10,000 a year end up needing hospital treatment from botched backstreet abortions.

Throughout the trial, pro-choice campaigners, joined by many local people, lobbied the court hearing and campaigned on behalf of the accused. This and to some extent international opinion undoubtedly had an effect on the judges. During the trial, they said that "we are aware of the political, social and scientific debates surrounding this matter, but must stick to the law". However, they chose not to impose a mandatory prison sentence on Sandra Cordosa, even though the penalty for abortion in Portugal is up to three years in prison. There was less public sympathy for Ribeiro who was seen by many as exploiting the women who came to her clinic. If any of the clients had been jailed, however, the authorities feared that the latent sympathy could have developed into an active movement for social change.

This is still on the cards as pro-choice groups, women’s groups, a Member of the European Parliament and even some of the legal establishment are now pressing for the relaxation of Portugal’s abortion laws.

What the plight of women in Portugal and Ireland shows is that making abortion illegal does not prevent it happening but greatly adds to the trauma of women making what is already a difficult choice. At the illegal clinic in Maia, at least the medical procedures were adequate, but the women, who in many cases were undergoing an abortion because they were too poor to support another child, were forced into further debt. None will have had access to essential support, such as counselling before and after the termination, which should be provided.

The Socialist Party has campaigned over the years in Ireland and Britain against the attempted erosion of existing abortion rights. But we always put the case that this is not enough. Our programme calls for a woman’s right to choose when and whether to have children. For this choice to be a genuine one abortion must be available on request and free of charge. Currently in Britain, a woman seeking an abortion needs the authorisation of two doctors and this causes unacceptable delays. In addition, access to abortions under the NHS varies widely depending on where you live.

Real choice also has to include access to the resources necessary to bring children up free of poverty. This requires good quality, affordable housing and childcare, and benefits which reflect the real cost of bringing up a child.

Eleanor Donne


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