Abortion has been a crime in Portugal, carrying a penalty of up to eight years' imprisonment, since the 1850s. Yet between 100,000 and 180,000 backstreet abortions are performed every year, killing perhaps 2,000 women. Now a police campaign to enforce the abortion law may be under way for the first time since the country's right-wing dictatorship was overthrown in 1974. Recently, a young nurse was charged with having had an abortion three years ago, two women were accused of terminating their own pregnancies and a television journalist was put on trial for participating in a film about illegal abortions.
The law was untouched by the left-wing reforms after 1974 which liberalized divorce and contraception. All abortions are banned, even for urgent health reasons. Yet illegal operations are easily available, most of them performed by midwives, a third of whom are untrained. Most are carried out without emergency equipment to deal with complications. Hand-held ether is the only anesthetic, if one is available at all. The average cost of an abortion is about $100, but some cost as much as $450. A midwife packing in 10 customers a day could, in theory, make up to $25,000 a month. Women's groups reckon that at least some of this goes to doctors for providing equipment and premises, or just for keeping quiet.
Astonishingly, as many as a third of all Portuguese women are thought to have had at least one abortion. Yet according to an opinion poll published in January, there is little public pressure for legalization. Only 17 percent of Portuguese favor complete legalization, and 12 percent would like to see a relaxation of the present law. In rural districts the numbers in favor of change are even lower. Prospects for a nationwide campaign to legalize abortion, like the one that succeeded in Italy, seem remote.