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Portuguese Vote Sunday in Parliamentary Elections

Portuguese vote in parliamentary elections Sunday that pit the country's embattled Social Democratic Party against the opposition Socialists. While the Socialists are widely expected to win, many Portuguese say they see little difference in the two parties. But whether abortion should be legalized is one issue that divides the conservatives and leftist block as it does in the 25-nation European Union.

Portugal's Socialist party held a get out the vote rally on a flawless afternoon in this riverside city, just days before the country's parliamentary elections. They are widely expected to win Sunday's vote, scheduled after President Jorge Sampaio decided to dissolve the parliament after a flood of complaints against the ruling conservatives.

Both parties vow they will jump start the country's ailing economy, reduce unemployment and increase business competitiveness. And some Porto residents like 19-year-old Mafalda Lopes say they see little difference between the two.

"They are like the same," said Mafalda Lopes. "I don't like either. I don't know. But Im going to vote. I don't know." .

But Luis Ramos, a 43-year-old systems information manager feels differently. Mr. Ramos says he will vote for the Socialists, because the party represents what he hopes for in his life and that of his two children. He also backs a vow by Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates to hold a referendum on whether abortion should be legalized.

"Its a good thing to legalize abortion because we have many problems with illegal clinics," said Luis Ramos. "And many people pay so much to do that illegally. They must go to Spain to do it legally. I think we can do that in Portugal also. Its better."

Under current Portuguese law a woman can only have an abortion under strict conditions such as if her life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.

In a 1998 referendum, voters rejected by 51 to 49 percent a proposal to allow abortions on demand during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. But only 32 percent of Portuguese showed up to vote.

Today, women's rights groups say up to 40,000 abortions are performed illegally in Roman Catholic Portugal each year. Thousands of other women go abroad for the procedure. And they say hundreds end up in hospitals each year because of abortion-related complications.

Dozens more have been brought to trial for having illegal abortions. Doctors and nurses have also been charged in several high-profile trials in recent years. So far only one nurse has gone to prison.

Maria Jose Magalhaes heads the Porto chapter of UMAR, a women's rights lobby group. She says those punished are generally the most underprivileged.

"The women who have abortions are the poorest, the youngest, the oldest, the violence victims who are on trial," said Maria Jose Magalhaes. "The others, the middle class, the literate women, they have other possibilities to have an abortion. They can go to Spain."

Portuguese abortion laws have long been considered among the most restrictive in Europe, alongside those of Ireland. In many other European Union countries, legal abortions are considered unquestioned social rights.

But the EU's expansion from 15 to 25 countries has exposed new divisions on abortion rights.

Poland, Cyprus and Slovakia, which joined the European Union last year, allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy only under strict conditions. Malta, another EU newcomer, bans the procedure altogether.

Like a number of other social issues, abortion legislation does not come under the EU's influence, but is left to individual member states. But that does not stop some women's rights advocates like Manuela Sampaio, head of the Porto chapter of the Association for Family Planning, from worrying about a slide toward a more conservative Europe.

"Things are changing," said Manuela Sampaio. "Before, when the European Union only had 15, there wasn't a law but a recommendation to member countries that they must liberalize abortion. and Portugal received it, when Mr. Romano Prodi [headed the European Commission.] But now things can change very much. With Poland and so on. And we don't know how things can happen."

Not all women's rights activists share Mrs. Sampaio's concerns. Some, like Anne van Lancker, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, believe the European Union is gradually becoming more liberal about abortions along with a host of other social issues.

"The majority of member states have fairly liberal abortion legislation," said Anne van Lancker. "And I think if it isn't disrupted by ultra, ultra conservative forces in some countries, it will stand for some time."

Recent polls also show that the majority of Portuguese support relaxing abortion restrictions. But Portuguese Justice Minister Jose Padre Aguiar-Branco notes the Catholic Church remains a powerful force in shaping moral values here.

Mr. Branco says he thinks the discussion about abortion in Portugal is influenced by the fact that religion still carries a lot of weight. And the concept of life as well.

Even Socialist Party members are divided over the abortion question. Former Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, for example, was against liberalizing the country's abortion law.

At the rally in Porto, 43-year-old Socialist Party member Helena Vilaca also admitted she was torn over whether abortion should be liberalized. Mrs. Vilaca is a sociology professor and a mother of three.

"After being a mother, I started to see life in another way," said Helena Vilaca. "I agree with the law we have. But I have doubts. I don't know whether its fair to send to prison a woman who commits an abortion. Its a conscience problem."

Even if the Socialists win on Sunday, its unlikely a new referendum on liberalizing abortion will be held anytime soon. Party members tick off a list of other votes in the upcoming months, for local elections and to elect Portugal's next president, not to mention a referendum on the new European constitution.

We can only call people so many times to the ballot box, said Jose Lello, a Socialist member of Parliament. We need to give the abortion question some time.