Abortion … it’s your choice – but still a taboo subject in Portugal

It is possibly one of the toughest, life-changing decisions a woman may ever be asked to make, yet the subject of abortion in conservative and predominantly-Catholic Portugal still remains very much a taboo. Most people will know – or know of – someone who has had a termination, though will rarely find themselves openly discussing the matter. Women who have had abortions will seldom talk about it, despite living in a society that claims to be more tolerant and less judgemental of their decision. And so the question remains to be answered: is the choice of motherhood a basic human right or a moral obligation?

The matter of abortion still remains heavily shrouded by a veil of secrecy and shame even as we approach the second decade on this new millennium. It is historically one of modern humanity’s most controversial debates; whether, irrespective of the circumstances under which a pregnancy occurs, it is a basic human right for a woman to be able to decide whether she is prepared for motherhood or not.

Views and laws on this issue vary from country to country, reflecting the religious or liberal beliefs of each Government and the population.

In Ireland, for example, abortions are carried out under strict conditions, allowed only if woman’s life is at risk, including the risk of suicide. A loophole both the Government and the Church want closed.

In Malta abortion is prohibited in all circumstances and without exception.

Holland, on the other hand, known for being one of Europe’s more ‘forward-thinking’ countries (depending on individual views), will carry out voluntary terminations on request up to the 24th week of gestation. Abortions are free of charge under the government-sponsored national health insurance system. The Exceptional Medical Expenses Fund covers the cost of the operation. Despite this, and maybe surprisingly, the Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world. Contraception is widely available and, with the exception of condoms, is free of charge.

Until last year abortion remained illegal in Portugal, a situation that drove thousands of women to seek abortions in life-endangering, clandestine set-ups or foreign countries. Many fled to neighbouring Spain, where abortions were, and are, legal in private clinics.

On July 15th 2007, Portuguese law was liberalised to allow abortions on request within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, after a referendum which saw almost 60 percent of voters back the move.

Prime Minister José Sócrates said at the time “the people spoke with a clear voice”.

At present, in Portugal, a woman may terminate a pregnancy by choice during the first ten weeks of gestation. Pregnancies can also be terminated up to 12 weeks if posing risk of death or long-lasting, serious harm to the woman; 16 weeks in the case of rape, and 24 weeks if there is certainty of serious disease or malformation of the foetus.

There are only four private, legal abortion clinics in Portugal, and whilst voluntary terminations can be conducted in public hospitals, many women are sent via the National Health System to private establishments as public waiting lists are too long or departments are understaffed. Another obstacle is the fact medical professionals have the legal right to object to carrying out a voluntary termination if it contradicts their moral beliefs.

Tucked away on a backstreet in the middle of the city of Lisbon, Spanish-owned Clínica dos Arcos was the first private clinic in Portugal to carry out legal abortions. It belongs to a group originally established in Spain, which has been specialising in fertility issues since 1983. The Portugal News visited the clinic to interview its Director Yolanda Hernandez and have a look around the establishment.

On any given day, the number of abortions carried out at Clínica dos Arcos can vary from 20 to 40. Sixty per cent of their patients are sent via the National Health System.

There is no general majority concerning age or circumstance by which women seek intervention at Clínica Dos Arcos, Yolanda Hernandez told The Portugal News, but there is the common denominator that all patients are “exercising their right of choice”.

“For some it is a career-related decision, for others it is due to social or economical circumstances, but it is ultimately a personal choice”.

Women of all ages and walks of life turn to the clinic for ‘help’, as unwanted or unplanned pregnancies are not something that only affects the underprivileged.

There is a private entrance at the back of the establishment as well as a VIP waiting room for patients who due to their social statuses or celebrity do not want to be seen at or arriving and leaving the clinic.

Asked whether the clinic had treated anyone famous, Yolanda replied, “We see lots of people”.

Operating theatres are equipped with state-of-the-art technology, on par with what is used in Spain and more advanced than what is required by Portuguese law. A number of single and communal recovery rooms are available for patients, who can be in and out in less than two hours.

Brought into the debate is the question of whether a 10-week period (including an obligatory three-day ‘reflection period’ and taking into account most pregnancies are confirmed at four to five weeks) is long enough for a woman to make a well-informed, conscious decision. It has been reported many women still seek voluntary terminations after the 10-week legal period, possibly as they do not fully understand the law. Many still do not even know they can ask for an abortion via the National Health System.

Regarding this matter Yolanda said, “Health-wise, the earlier the intervention is done, the better”.

From being liberalised last July the number of abortions taking place during the first six months of the new regime were calculated as being “significantly lower” that what was the initially projected number, a senior health official said earlier this year. Around 60 per cent of the number expected had voluntary terminations.

According to official figures, 6,099 women underwent legal abortions between July 15, 2007 and the end of the year, roughly 60% of the number that had been first estimated on the basis of statistics from other EU member states that foresaw 20,000 abortions annually in Portugal.

This is contradicted by the director of Clínica dos Arcos, who believes the real figure is somewhat higher, over 30,000 per year.

In a recent study named ‘Abortion in Portugal: The Reality Present and Future’, the Portuguese Federation For Life revealed that the majority of abortions take place amongst women in the 25-34 age group, and shows that the number of voluntary terminations being carried out in Europe is growing at a constant rate.

The Pro-Life Association predicts that by the year 2030 one in every four conceptions will be terminated.

So far, no abortions have been documented on the island of Madeira.

Meanwhile, the topic of whether abortion is morally right or wrong continues to cause conflict.

Roberta S. was born into an affluent family in Angola, during a time when inter-racial relationships were frowned upon. After falling pregnant from an illegitimate affair with a native African, Roberta made the decision to keep her baby despite the social out-casting she knew she would face from family and friends.

She told The Portugal News “I lost everything and went against everyone to be able to keep my baby. I had to face the world and there was no hiding what I had done. In the end I moved to another country. But I loved my baby and I would never have had an abortion.

Years later acquaintances told me that the more people talked about me and criticised me, the more they had admired me for standing by what I believed in. I would never have done things differently, even though others might have”.

Upon trying to talk to two or three known cases of unplanned pregnancies – mostly teenage pregnancies – that had ended in abortion (illegal abortions or carried out in foreign countries) and without parent’s knowledge, all attempts were met with closed doors.

None of the young women were willing to recount what they had been through.



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