Portuguese Parliament set to vote on new abortion referendum

Portugal looked set to take a major step toward legalizing abortion on Thursday, with all of the country's main political parties signaling they won't stand in the way of calling a national referendum that will put the hot-button issue squarely in the hands of voters.

This conservative Roman Catholic country has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with the procedure only allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's health is at risk.

If approved in a national referendum, the bill before parliament would make abortion legal up to the 10th week of pregnancy. The governing center-left Socialist Party supports the referendum, and the main opposition parties have said they won't oppose the ballot either.

The referendum is expected to be called for January.

In Europe, only Poland and Ireland have similarly restrictive rules on abortion, and Malta forbids abortion altogether.

Those Portuguese women who can afford it travel to abortion clinics across the border in Spain. Even so, pro-choice groups claim around 10,000 women are hospitalized every year in Portugal due to complications arising from botched backstreet abortions.

The government wants that to stop.

"We have to end this blight of backstreet abortions," Prime Minister Jose Socrates said last weekend. "It makes Portugal a backward country."

Still, it is not entirely certain whether voters will agree. The powerful Roman Catholic church stands firmly against legalization, reports AP.

A 1998 referendum that would have legalized abortion was declared void because of a poor turnout, but with the "No" vote winning narrowly. More than 50 percent of the country's registered voters need to cast ballots for a referendum to be valid.

The main opposition parties have said they won't oppose this year's ballot, but Christian Democrats said they would abstain. The small Communist party said it would vote against because a referendum is not the way to make such an important decision.

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