Press statement Cecília Costa


presented at the august 23, 2004 press conference in Den Helder. On behalf of the four portugese organisations that invited Women on Waves to sail.

My name is Cecília Costa. I am a psychologist and member of UMAR, a Portuguese women’s rights organization. Today I am here to represent the four organizations that invited Women on Waves to sail to Portugal, Não te Prives, UMAR, AJP and Clube Safo. But most of all I am here as a woman living in Portugal who has no right to decide about my own life. Why is this still possible in Europe?

I would like to tell you a little bit about the criminalization of abortion in Portugal.
When I was 19, in 1998, there was a referendum about legalizing abortion in Portugal. It was the first referendum ever held in Portugal. I believe that women‘s rights or the dignity of women should never be questioned in or decided by a referendum. And it was indeed the anti abortion movement that wanted this referendum because the law legalizing abortion had already passed in parliament. The fact that this happened in Portugal already indicates how bad the situation really is. All the polls had indicated that the majority of the people would vote for legalization. What happened then is beyond belief, but could happen in any European country. All it took was a sunny day and a population too confident that abortion would get legalized anyway. The church had mobilized all its supporters to vote. Only 30 % of the total voting population actually voted, but of these 30 %, 51% were against legalization. The referendum was not supposed to be valid because according to our constitution at least 50 % of the people have to cast their vote to make the result of a referendum valid.

But this outcome of a public referendum was a good enough reason to stop the democratic process that had started, the process which involved to law to legalize abortion which had already passed in parliament. That moment was when the prosecutions started.

Suddenly women were on trial for having an abortion. Suddenly the 20.000 women who have an abortion in Portugal annually, became criminals that could be prosecuted in court. And not only the women, but their family, their friends that knew and helped them get an abortion and their partners were all accomplices in the crime of abortion.

The more than 25 women that have been on trial, have been vilified, exposed to the media and humiliated. These were women from humble backgrounds, with no money to pay for a good lawyer. How is it possible that here in Europe women can still be treated like criminals for having an abortion?
The Portuguese people were very upset and angry about these prosecutions and there was a lot of support for the efforts of the women’s organization in Portugal who tried everything to restart the democratic process for legalization of abortion.
But everything failed. A petition for a new referendum last January was turned down by our government because they had made a “gentleman’s agreement� not to deal with the abortion issue while they are in power. Is this a democracy? A “Gentlemen’s agreement� against women’s rights and against the will of the Portuguese people?

So what are women in Portugal supposed to do, just wait until this government might fall? This almost happened when Barroso, our Prime minister, left for the European Union. With Barroso as president of the European commission, we know for sure we cannot expect anything anymore from the European Union because we can expect him to follow the same political stance as in he did in Portugal. Which means against abortion rights.
This is when we decided to invite Women on Waves. Finally we are able to take some control ourselves. It is a great opportunity to kick start the democratic process. And it has given us energy to finally do something again and created new hope to change this horrible situation for Portuguese women.

What does this horrible situation actually mean? What are the consequences of illegal abortion for Portuguese women? I heard about 2 friends who had both experienced an unwanted pregnancy. One of these women had money and the right relations. She knew some doctors and managed to get an safe abortion in a public hospital. The other woman did not know anybody to turn to. After a long desperate and silent search she found a midwife who said she could help. The next morning the woman left her house alone and went to the midwife for the abortion. She never returned home. This happens to at least 3 women in Portugal every year. Many women (5000 a year) do survive but end up in the hospital with severe complications which will effect their health for the rest of their live. How is it possible that we allow women that live in Europe die unnecessary from an illegal and unsafe abortion?

If I think about the pain, the loneliness, the despair, the guilt and the horror these women must have felt while they were bleeding to death or searching for help in the hospital, I know I have to try everything in my power to make sure that this can not keep on happening. I do not want to stand by watching this injustice. I know that when abortion is legal these women will be getting good health care and will be treated with dignity and will not die or suffer from complications of unsafe abortions. And as long as you, Europeans and citizens of the Netherlands acknowledge this and still stand by, you are also responsible for this injustice.

I would like call upon the Dutch government that now has the presidency of the European Union to finally bring an end to this violation of women’s human rights and dignity.