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Portugal? South Dakota? I’ll Take Holland

Feb
28
2006

An article about abortion in Portugal in this Sunday’s El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, opens with a striking anecdote. In 2004 a Dutch NGO, Women On Waves, sailed a ship off the coast of Portugal to offer abortions on-board and to draw attention to the country’s highly restrictive abortion climate. But Portugal banned the ship from coming near; and to make sure it stayed out of Portuguese waters, the defense minister sent out a warship to hover nearby.
Too bad for South Dakotan women that their state doesn’t have a coast. Because I know they don’t have their own Navy; a ship might get through there.
The Portuguese law on abortion is highly restrictive – and unusually for an E.U. member nation, punishes doctors and women who abort with jail sentences, although according to El Pais, in recent years judges have avoided giving women prison time. (The article is in Spanish, so I’ll summarize a bit of it.) But what’s also interesting is that even for the few cases where abortion is legal (such as fetal malformations, rape, danger to the mother’s health), the culture makes it extremely difficult to get a legal abortion, according to El Pais.
The newspaper – for you gringos, it’s The New York Times of Spain – says that Portuguese law is actually similar to Spanish law, which is restrictive on paper but allows abortion to protect a woman’s mental health, a clause which is interpreted fairly liberally. Portuguese law does limit abortion access more, but according to the article what really keeps abortion unavailable is doctors’ refusal to perform the procedure. This is in part because of social pressure in the country where the Roman Catholic Church still has a strong hold on social customs, in part because performing abortions illegally is a profitable business for the doctors, nurses and clinics who do it, according to sources quoted in the article.
The idea that individuals’ attitudes affect abortion access is not that different from what happens in U.S. states with parental notification laws when a girl runs into a conservative judge. Or in the large parts of many U.S. states where there are only a few, if any, doctors who perform abortions.
Much of the El Pais article interviews women who’ve had abortions and their stories are sad and infuriating. And they are similar to what happened in the U.S. before abortion was legalized. Some of the Portugese stories are similar to what happens, even today, in places where the operation is hard to come by. Women travel to Spain for abortions, or go to illegal or quasi-legal clinics in Portugal. There’s a rich young woman who could afford an illegal clinic, a poor girl who induced her own abortion and almost died, a woman whose contraception failed, an older woman who when younger went in secret to the neighborhood non-medically trained abortionist.
And one story of a woman whose abortion was legal, because of severe fetal malformation. But the public hospital kept subjecting her to delaying tests, until the woman’s own doctor said it was clear the hospital was trying to stall until the legal time period had passed. So the woman went to a nurse’s home clinic for the abortion; this nurse worked at the public hospital that was stalling her “legal” proceedure.
The U.S. Supreme Court today made it easier to intimidate women trying to get abortions. Laws in many states have been trying to chip away at – or remove (see South Dakota) – abortion rights. The El Pais article drew my attention not only to learn about Portugal itself, but for what it reflects back on the U.S. It’s a demonstration of the danger of the current anti-choice tactics. It’s not just the laws but their interpretation and the conservative climate that both – interpretation and legislation – bred, especially as they affect medicine where, for instance, a lack of practicing doctors causes a de facto abortion ban in many U.S. counties.
All that could mean that too many women are left stranded, in real need of flagging down a passing ship in a land-locked state.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 5:05 PM | Permalink

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