Portugal doctors stand by anti-abortion principles

LISBON, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Portuguese doctors have rejected a government ultimatum to remove an ethical ban on performing abortions after this deeply Catholic country approved the practice in July.

Pedro Nunes, the head of Portugal's Medical Association, said doctors had every right to object morally to an abortion, which is stated to be wrong in the association's ethical code, despite government threats to take him to court.

"Having an opinion and ethical principles is what separates rational beings from a flock of sheep," Nunes said on Thursday.

The ethical code states doctors must respect human life from its beginning and the practice of abortion constitutes a grave ethical failure.

"This has nothing to do with abortion. It has to do with doctors having the right to have their own opinion," Pedro Nunes, who represents around 35,000 doctors, told reporters.

"The health minister threatened to take us to court if we did not change our code ... but the code can only be changed by doctors and not by a health minister."

Health Minister Antonio Correia de Campos, a socialist, recently said the Medical Association's code conflicts with the new abortion law that allows women in Portugal to have an abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

The law came into force in July after 60 percent of voters in a referendum approved the practice, bringing Portugal closer into line with most European nations.

The Health Ministry recently said 2,404 legal abortions had been performed between July and October 19, mostly through medication pills.

Around 23,000, mostly illegal, abortions were carried out every year before the ban was lifted, according to government estimates in February.

Nunes said doctors had every right to ask themselves whether a human life begins upon conception or only after a series of weeks inside a woman's body.

"If a doctor firmly believes that a human life begins upon conception he shouldn't perform abortions," said Nunes.

Doctors who work in Portugal's state-owned hospitals can claim their conscience forbids them to carry out an abortion or refer the woman to a different doctor.

Nunes did not say how many doctors had declined to carry out abortions since the ban was lifted. (Reporting by Henrique Almeida; editing by Robert Woodward)