Portuguese Parliament Approves National Referendum On Loosening Abortion Referenda: a solution?
25 Oct 2006: Finally almost 2 years after winning the elections the socialist government will held a referendum on abortion on February 11, 2007. If the referendum is approved by the president and constitutional court, voters will be asked: "Do you agree with the decriminalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, in the first 10 weeks, in a legally authorized health establishment?"
The Socialist Party won the new elections in February 2005. The Socialist Party vowed to hold a new referendum on easing the country's strict laws against abortion already in August 2005. But it has been postponed again and again and recently again 3 women were convicted to half a year of imprisonment for having an illegal abortion and the doctor who helped them was put in jail for 3,5 years.
If approved, the referendum would implement legislation that would legalize abortions up to 10 weeks' gestation.
rime Minister Jose Socrates said the Socialist party will actively campaign in favor of changing the abortion laws if the referendum is held. Officials say that about 10,000 women annually in Portugal are treated at hospitals for complications caused by illegal abortions
Most countries that legalized abortion did so through legislation or court cases. However anti abortion groups started calling for referenda on the abortion issue. Historically referenda have been a popular way to solve tricky political issues and to attempt to affirm the right of the majority already in power.
Even the question of whether to extend the right of suffrage to women has been decided by referenda. In Canada (1916) and the US (1919), an all-male referendum was conducted to determine voting rights for women. This however was only possible after a long and highly visible campaign of the women’s movement and now it would be considered immoral to decide such an issue by a referendum. Arguments against women’s right to vote was that women were emotional an weak and therefore not able to come to an objective judgment. Women were said to be intellectually inferior and in need of a man to handle their affairs. Some of the same ways of negatively characterizing women are now used to deny women’s decision about abortion.
In the past few year abortion referenda have been held in Portugal, Ireland and Switzerland. Interestingly enough it is usually the anti abortion groups that have the political power to set the agenda for these referenda. In 2001 after the Swiss government finally agreed to liberalize the abortion law, anti-abortion groups succeeded to force a referendum to prevent the law from taking effect. Because the Swiss government strongly supported and campaigned for the legalization of abortion, the referendum was won with a comfortable majority. In 1998 the Portuguese Parliament approved a proposal for legal abortion on request up to 10 weeks of pregnancy, but later a national referendum was proposed to solve the matter This was the first referendum in the history of Portugal and the Government did not fully support the referendum, but the Catholic Church mobilized all its forces for No Vote. At the referendum only 32 per cent voted - around 51 per cent of them voted No and 49 per cent voted Yes. The results of the referendum would only have had legal effect if more than 50 per cent of the electors had voted but the process for liberalization of the abortion laws was stopped afterwards.
The referenda in Ireland only offered the option of increasing restrictions on abortion and never offered voters the choice to vote for liberalization of the abortion laws. These referenda have always called for by the religious groups working closely with the majority parties.
The way referenda questions are drafted, and in particular the language used, can strongly influence the outcome. Likewise, whether or not the referendum is supported by the governing political parties and the financial and other resources available for the different campaigns to influence the public opinion; and most importantly the popular media all have a large impact on the resulting vote. Religious anti-abortion groups usually have access to large financial means.
Irrespective of the outcome of referenda, however, referenda on minority issues can be quite harmful to disenfranchised groups. In 1999 the Hungarian President Rudolf Schuster decided not to call a referendum on the official use of minority languages following the nationalist-minded opposition's to the recently adopted minority language law. In 2002 in British Columbia, Canada, a referendum on aboriginal land rights did take place despite great opposition. Christian leaders in British Columbia - including the bishops - urged parishioners to vote against or protest the referendum because they objected to the very concept of the referendum. Archbishop Crawley noted that: "It is wrong for the rights of a minority to be decided by a vote of the majority. We do not use referenda to test the wide range of human rights, religious, free speech and other legislation which implements constitutional rights. We do not impose referenda on other minority groups who seek to exercise their constitutional rights."
However when legal decisions are made about opposite values such as gay rights and abortion rights, the same religious groups explicitly call for referenda. In 2002 a referendum concerning a law that protects people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation was held in Miami-Dade County in the US. Religious groups had forced the referendum vote with a petition. In November 1998 something similar had happened in Hawaii. A referendum about a constitutional amendment that gave the state legislature the power to reserve marriage for opposite sex couples was called for by religious pro-family groups that claimed to vote against the amendment was to vote for homosexual marriage. These groups had access to a large amount of financial and in-kind donations and unfortunately voters passed the amendment by a 2-1 margin.
Clearly the position of religious groups on the acceptability of a referendum depends the way it can advance their agenda. Usually it is those who oppose the minority rights that call for a referendum to block the laws taking effect that would protect minority rights.
Human rights issues like freedom of religion or speech can never be the subject of a referendum as they are designed to protect the right of minorities. Referenda are seemingly democratic but fundamentally unjust where it imposes the majority opinion on a minority and violate the rights of this minority.
Why can abortion be considered as a minority issue? Although it is the most performed medical intervention in the world it is still a minority of the women (people) who are actually affected by it at a certain moment. Moreover, women who have abortions often keep this information secret even to their closest family members. While anti-abortion proponents assert their religious beliefs, making abortion illegal violates other people’s freedom of religion. Freedom of religion also means freedom not to be religious and to be able to express ones faith accordingly and not to have one's actions restricted by other people's religious practices.
So if general referenda are insufficient to address the abortion issue, what is? Abortion is a matter of public health and women’s right to autonomy. As happened in Canada the abortion laws should just be removed entirely from the criminal code. Abortion should be treated as a normal medical procedure that does not require separate laws because it is already covered by the existing laws and regulations for all other medical procedures and the doctor’s code of conduct.