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155 Working Paper

The 1998 and 2007 Referenda on Abortion in Portugal: Roman Catholicism, Secularization and the Recovery of Traditional Communal Values

2008 – Maurya N. Tollefsen and Paul Christopher Manuel


In the thirty-three years since the April 25, 1974, Carnation Revolution, there have been sporadic efforts by progressive forces to legalize abortion in Portugal. This activity has intensified over the past nine years, culminating with two national referenda on the subject, one in 1998 which narrowly affirmed the ban on abortion, and the second in 2007 which allowed for the procedure during the first ten weeks of pregnancy. One reason that the abortion debate in Portugal attracted much interest in the world press was what it would potentially teach about the Roman Catholic Church's contemporary role in Portuguese society. That is, would the Church maintain its traditional influential role over public policy formation in a secularizing Portugal, especially related to its moral teaching? There is some controversy about the type of secularization which is taking place (i.e., Portuguese-style secularization may be of a different sort than that of Northern European countries), but there is little doubt that the Church's ability to define morality for its members has been reduced in recent years. The Church now competes with many secular voices to frame issues such as sexuality, marriage, divorce and abortion. The recent vote to legalize abortion — a move bitterly opposed by the Church — is but one of many examples symbolizing a drift in Portuguese society toward secularization. There was another dimension to the national debate over abortion as well: the pro-choice side successfully harmonized its rhetoric to certain traditional communal values found in Portuguese society — namely compassion, solidarity and support — and, in so doing, forged a recovery of those values.