The seven women face sentences of up to eight years in jail if convicted. Abortion is banned in Roman Catholic Portugal except in cases of rape or serious health concern.

The ruling is expected on 17 February.

Public prosecutors in the fishing town of Aveiro have also charged a doctor with allegedly performing the abortions, as well as his two employees and seven others who are considered to be accomplices.

These include the parents, husbands or boyfriends of the women who allegedly accompanied them to the high street clinic where the abortions are said to have taken place.

Case details

Prosecutors accuse the doctor of having charged the women $345 to carry out the abortions but defence lawyers deny the women were even pregnant when they visited his clinic.

The case against the accused was weakened after key evidence, including ultrasound scans of the seven women which prosecutors had submitted to the court to prove the women were pregnant, was found to have gone missing earlier this month.

"I am convinced that the end result will be favourable for the accused," Diocleciano Machado, a lawyer for one of the men put on trial for being an accomplice, told daily newspaper Diario de Noticias.

"There is very little evidence," he added.

No evidence

"The law should be declared unconstitutional because it does not respect the individual liberty guaranteed in the constitution"

Odete Santos,
Communist MP

The prosecutor has called for the maximum penalty for the doctor and seven women but has acknowledged there is insufficient evidence to convict the accomplices, private TSF radio reported.

The case has re-ignited debate in Portugal over the country's highly restrictive abortion laws.

Campaigners for change argue the current law forces thousands of women to have life-threatening abortions in back street clinics, often in highly unsanitary conditions.

"The law should be declared unconstitutional because it does not respect the individual liberty guaranteed in the constitution," lawmaker Odete Santos told the Lusa news agency.

Change in law?

Since November advocates of decriminalization of abortion have been circulating a petition calling for a new referendum on the issue.

About 65,000 signatures have been collected but 75,000 are needed before the referendum proposal can be taken up by parliament.

In a 1998 referendum, voters narrowly rejected by 51 percent to 49 percent a proposed new law that would have allowed abortion on demand in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.