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Portugal to legalize abortion, conservatives shaken
LISBON (Reuters) - Catholic Portugal's decision to join most European countries and allow abortions has shaken the country's conservative establishment but was hailed by liberals as a victory for modernity.
Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates said on Sunday he would use his majority in parliament to legalize abortion after a referendum on the issue failed because too few people turned out to vote. But of those who did vote, the majority approved.
"It's a victory for a country that no longer submits itself to 'fado' or misery, nor does it walk blind to the tone of its leaders -- be they political or religious," wrote respected columnist Fernanda Cancio in daily Diario de Noticias.
"The 'Yes' is not the end but the beginning," she added.
Under the current ban, women caught aborting can go to jail for up to three years.
When the ban is lifted, Portugal will join most European countries in allowing abortions, except a small group with strict abortion laws -- Malta, Ireland and Poland.
Liberals now hope other progressive laws can be passed as in neighboring Spain, such as allowing gay marriage.
The conservative camp, led by the head of Portugal's Catholic Democratic party, Jose Ribeiro e Castro, said this was a "sad chapter in Portugal's history".
More than half the traditionally Catholic nation's 8.7 million electorate abstained, but of those who voted in Sunday's referendum, 59.3 percent voted to lift the abortion ban and 40.8 percent to keep it.
Portugal's bishops gathered on Monday at an extraordinary national conference in the sanctuary of Fatima, north of Lisbon, where the Virgin Mary was reported to have appeared several times to three shepherd children in 1917.
"The Catholic Church will issue a statement on events surrounding the referendum on abortion later on Friday," a spokesman for the Portuguese Catholic Church said.
Socrates said despite the turnout, the outcome was in favor of lifting the ban for women in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. He did not say when the motion to legalize abortion would be sent to parliament.
He can count on backing from the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democrats, which should ensure there will be no obstacles to legalize abortion for the Socialists, who already have a parliamentary majority.
Marina Costa Lobo, a political scientist at Lisbon's Social Sciences Institute, said the change represented a huge effort by this traditional country to converge its moral values with the majority of European countries.
"This change signals Portugal is making a huge effort not just to converge its economy with the rest of Europe but also its values," said Costa Lobo.
While 90 percent of Portuguese say they are Roman Catholic, only about 20 percent go to church once or more a week.
Portugal's traditional values are seen as a consequence of almost half a century of Antonio Salazar's right-wing dictatorship which kept the country's economy stable but isolated the country from the rest of Europe.
Portugal will hold the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2007 after Germany and the government is hoping to be able to showcase Portugal as a modernizer after years of lagging economic performance.
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