Paris, France (CNSNews.com) - A referendum to legalize abortion in Portugal failed on Sunday because the turnout was too low -- but the Socialist prime minister has nevertheless vowed to push the measure through parliament, a plan critics call "disgraceful."
Nearly 60 percent of those who voted said they were in favor of changing the law to allow women to undergo abortions until the 10th week of pregnancy, but the referendum is legally binding only if more than 50 percent of the country's 8.9 million registered voters cast ballots.
Sunday's turnout was 44 percent, and pro-life opponents of the move to lift abortion restrictions said the heavy abstention rate showed that most Portuguese had not made up their minds on the issue.
"Those were not 'yes' votes," said Roger Kiska, legal counsel at the European Center for Law and Justice in Strasbourg, France.
"They do not have, procedurally, the majority of Portuguese registered voters voting [in support of changing the law]."
But repeating a pledge he made while campaigning for the "yes" vote in the referendum, Prime Minister Jose Socrates said he believes he now has a mandate to change the country's anti-abortion law.
"The law will now be discussed and approved in Parliament," he said. "The people have spoken and they have spoken with a clear voice."
"The referendum's purpose was to discuss the views of the public on this very vital, constitutional issue, and then to not respect the outcome of this vote is rather disgraceful in my opinion." said Kiska.
In a referendum, not going to the polls is understood to amount to a "no" vote, he said. Many Portuguese didn't vote because they were undecided, or uninterested in the issue - or even because the weather was poor.
"In essence, it does not mean, as the prime minister is saying, that Portugal is overwhelmingly saying they want to liberalize the abortion laws. Constitutionally, he is committing a strong violation of the current abortion law."
Socrates' Socialist Party holds an overwhelming majority in parliament and will most likely be able to push through the change in legislation without a problem.
Besides the opposition conservative Partido Popular and Social Democratic parties, Portugal's Roman Catholic Church campaigned against the proposition.
Commenting on the results, Father Vincent Feroldi, communications director for the Diocese of Lyon in France, said the high abstention mostly showed an unease in Portuguese society because people were reticent to authorize a law on abortion but also unwilling to go out and say no.
Feroldi said it was now important for Portugal to look at how to improve education about the condition of women, the life of couples, and sexuality.
"The first thing in the Catholic doctrine is respect for life and the act of abortion cannot be justified," he said. "Life must be respected from its conception."
"But there is much work to be done so that women are not faced with the question of whether they should abort or no abort," he added.
Speaking on television, Partido Popular head Jose Ribeiro e Castro said, "Socrates will be responsible for this sad chapter in Portugal's history for insisting on a political move that has split Portuguese society."
Portugal's current law makes abortion illegal except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger.
Portugal, Ireland, Malta and Poland are the only remaining countries in the 27-member European Union to have tight restrictions on abortion.
A referendum in Portugal on the issue in 1998 was declared invalid because of low voter turnout. In that case, 51 percent of those who did vote supported maintaining the abortion law.
Socrates has said that he wants to put an end to illegal and clandestine abortions, which he called "backward," but pro-life activists point out that Portuguese women are free to travel to other E.U. countries to have abortions.
The process to legalize abortion is expected to take about eight months because the bill will have to be voted first in parliament, approved by the president, and then published publicly.
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