In Portugal, abortion legal but many doctors refuse to perform them

July 18, 2012

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This episode of Worldview was originally broadcast on August 10, 2011.

This week, to gain insights into America's polarized abortion debate, we look at how reproductive rights issues play out in other countries. It’s part of our Here, There series, where we examine how other countries tackle universal challenges.

Tuesday we looked at Mexico. Wednesday we focus on another country with a strong Catholic presence: Portugal.

The Portuguese used to have one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. That began to change in 2007, when voters approved a referendum to legalize abortion. Due to low turnout, the vote was not legally binding, but later that year the government signed a measure allowing voluntary abortions up to the 10th week of pregnancy.

"When the referendum was passed in Portugal, the national doctors' order — the equivalent of a doctors union — was against it. They felt it was a crime," explained Beatriz Padilla, a senior researcher at Center for Research and Studies in Sociology at the University Institute of Lisbon. "So they were given the right of objecting to do the abortion." 

The percentage of doctors unwilling to perform abortions is very large. 

"When you make an appointment, you have no idea if the doctor you are waiting to see in a few weeks is pro or con to doing an abortion," Padilla said. 

Padilla, who studies gender issues in Portugal and the U.S., said the debate is very different in America. 

"In the states, I was surprised by how many fundamentalists are involved in the debate," Padilla said. "It's always about the fetus and never about the women."

Even though the Catholic Church has a lot of influence in Portugal, there is still a clear seperation of church and state, Padilla explained.

But where the government maintains this separation in theory, government practitioners actually have great latitude to influence women seeking abortions. So far, only private clinics, whose costs are high and not covered by the state, offer a solution to women who can afford it.