Portuguese vote on whether to permit abortion on demand

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Voter turnout appeared too low to validate a Portuguese referendum Sunday on whether to permit abortion on demand, a deeply divisive topic in this mostly Roman Catholic nation.
An exit poll by state television Radiotelevisao Portuguesa indicated voter turnout was between 21 percent and 28 percent. The results of the referendum, Portugal’s first, will be binding only if more than half the country’s 8.4 million registered voters participate.
The poll said between 47 percent and 53 percent of the voters supported the measure that would allow abortion on demand through the 10th week of pregnancy, and between 46 percent and 52 percent voted against it. The margin of error was not provided.
Two hours before polling stations closed, the National Electoral Commission announced that just 20 percent of the electorate had voted. Final results were expected late Sunday.
Under current laws, the termination of a pregnancy is permitted only for limited medical reasons or in cases of rape and only until the 12th week.
The National Assembly, Portugal’s parliament, has been debating the abortion issue for the past 14 years — ever since leftist parties first won enough seats to press for a discussion.
In February, lawmakers approved a bill relaxing abortion restrictions, but opponents successfully pushed for the national ballot, which will either overturn or ratify that legislation.
It was not immediately known whether the legislation would stand if the referendum was declared void.
An intense two-week campaign leading up to the ballot featured marches in major cities and a nationwide media blitz.
Abortion rights activists want to end the estimated 16,000 illegal abortions each year in Portugal, a nation of 9.5 million people. Government statistics indicate that 10,000 women are treated at hospitals each year following botched illegal abortions.
Women can be imprisoned for up to three years for having an illegal abortion.
Opposition to easing the law has come from older Portuguese, backed by the influential Catholic church and conservative parties.