I read this op-ed piece in the New York Times this morning and want to share it. Since you need to sign up to read it, I'll post the gist of it here:
April 7, 2004
The Abortion Question
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
LISBON — To understand what might happen in America if President Bush gets his way with the Supreme Court, consider recent events in Portugal.
Seven women were tried this year in the northern Portuguese fishing community of Aveiro for getting abortions. They were prosecuted — facing three-year prison sentences — along with 10 "accomplices," including husbands, boyfriends, parents and a taxi driver who had taken a pregnant woman to a clinic.
The police staked out gynecological clinics and investigated those who emerged looking as if they might have had abortions because they looked particularly pale, weak or upset. At the trial, the most intimate aspects of their gynecological history were revealed.
This was the second such mass abortion trial lately in Portugal. The previous one involved 42 defendants, including a girl who had been 16 at the time of the alleged abortion.
Both trials ended in acquittals, except for a nurse who was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for performing abortions.
Portugal, like the U.S., is an industrialized democracy with a conservative religious streak, but the trials have repulsed the Portuguese. A recent opinion poll shows that people here now favor abortion rights, 79 percent to 14 percent. In a sign of the changing mood, Portugal's president recently commuted the remainder of the nurse's sentence. There's a growing sense that while abortion may be wrong, criminalization is worse.
"It's very embarrassing," said Sandy Gageiro, a Lisbon journalist who covered the trials. "Lots of reporters came and covered Portugal and said it had this medieval process."
Portugal offers a couple of sobering lessons for Americans who, like Mr. Bush, aim to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The first is that abortion laws are very difficult to enforce in a world as mobile as ours. Some 20,000 Portuguese women still get abortions each year, mostly by crossing the border into Spain. In the U.S., where an overturn of Roe v. Wade would probably mean bans on abortion only in a patchwork of Bible Belt states, pregnant women would travel to places like New York, California and Illinois for their abortions.
The second is that if states did criminalize abortion, they would face a backlash as the public focus shifted from the fetus to the woman. "The fundamentalists have lost the debate" in Portugal, said Helena Pinto, president of UMAR, a Portuguese abortion rights group. "Now the debate has shifted to the rights of women. Do we want to live in a country where women can be in jail for abortion?"
Mr. Bush and other conservatives have chipped away successfully at abortion rights, as Gloria Feldt notes in her new book, "The War on Choice." That's because their strategy has been to focus on procedures like so-called partial-birth abortion and on protecting fetal rights. The strategy succeeds because most Americans share Mr. Bush's aversion to abortion.
As do I.
Like most Americans, I find abortion a difficult issue, because a fetus seems much more than a lump of tissue but considerably less than a human being. Most of us are deeply uncomfortable with abortion, especially in the third trimester, but we still don't equate it with murder.
That's why it makes sense to try to reduce abortions by encouraging sex education and contraception. The conservative impulse to teach abstinence only, without promoting contraception, is probably one reason the U.S. has so many more abortions per capita than Canada or Britain.
Portugal's experience suggests that while many people are offended by abortion on demand, they might be even more troubled by criminalization of abortion.
"Forbidding abortion doesn't save anyone or anything," said Sonia Fertuzinhos, a member of the Portuguese Parliament. "It just gets women arrested and humiliated in the public arena."
The upshot is that many Portuguese seem to be both anti-abortion and pro-choice. They are morally uncomfortable with abortion, especially late in pregnancies, but they don't think the solution is to arrest young women for making agonizing personal choices to end their pregnancies...