How Progressive is Portugal?

What are the laws governing important, and sometimes controversial, issues…

Earlier this year, Portuguese lawmakers voted to decriminalize euthanasia for the terminally ill who wish to end their lives. I was surprised to read about this given that 81% of the population is Roman Catholic. Coming from the US, where this can be a very divisive topic, it seemed remarkably progressive and got me thinking about where Portugal stands on other important issues. After doing some reading, I was impressed at how progressive the country is and thought you might find it interesting too. Here is a brief summary of the topics I researched.

Drug Use

All drugs are considered illegal, however, the offense for possession has been changed from a criminal to a civil one. Portugal decriminalized use and possession of all drugs in a way that moves the focus from criminal punishment to treatment.

Possession of personal amounts (a 10-day supply) is not subject to any penalties for a first-time offense. Subsequent offenses, however, may be subject to civil penalties or mandated treatment. The law was introduced in response to a series of deaths caused by overdoses in the 80s and 90s. Drug-related crimes and deaths have since decreased.

In July of 2018, legislation was signed into law to allow for the medical use of cannabis and its dispensation at pharmacies. Personal cultivation for medical use remains illegal.

Possession of cannabis has been decriminalized in amounts for personal use, considered to be up to 25 grams of plant material or 5 grams of hashish.

A Woman’s Right to Choose

Portuguese women have had the legal right to an abortion paid for by the state up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy since it was approved by a referendum in 2007. Before that time, women faced up to three years in prison for having an abortion, except in cases of rape or if there was danger to the health of the mother or fetus. The number of abortions performed in the country as a whole increased in the initial years after 2007, but has decreased steadily since 2011

The Death Penalty

Portugal was a pioneer when it came to the process of abolishing capital punishment. No executions have been carried out since 1846, with the formal abolishment of capital punishment for civil crimes occurring in 1867.

The method of capital punishment used in Portugal was by hanging. Portugal was the first country in the world to begin the process to abolish the death penalty, abolishing it in stages – for political crimes in 1852, for all crimes except the military in 1867, and for all crimes in 1911.

In 1916 Portugal entered World War I and the death penalty was re-established only for military crimes committed with a foreign country and only in the theater of war. With the new Constitution in 1976, it was again abolished for all crimes

Gun Ownership

Portuguese citizens can own firearms for hunting, target shooting, pest control and collecting. Self-defense is not considered a legal reason for owning a firearm. Legally, only licensed gun owners can lawfully acquire, possess or transfer a firearm or ammunition. Based on a 2017 assessment, there are approximately 22 gun owners for every 100 citizens.

To gain a gun license in Portugal, you must be over 18 years old and pass a background check, which considers criminal and mental health records.

In 2018, the homicide rate for Portugal was 0.8 cases per 100,000 population. Though Portugal’s homicide rate fluctuated substantially in recent years, it tended to decrease between 1999 an 2018 ending at 0.8 cases per 100,000 population in 2018. Portugal remains the third safest country in the world.

LGBTQ Rights

Referred to here as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), LGBT rights in Portugal improved substantially in the 2000s and 2010s and are now among the best in the world. After a long period of oppression during the Estado Novo, Portuguese society has become increasingly accepting of homosexuality, which was decriminalized in 1982, eight years after the Carnation Revolution. Portugal has wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws and is one of the few countries in the world to contain a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in its Constitution. On 5 June 2010, the state became the eighth in the world to recognize same-sex marriage (it wasn’t legalized in the US until 26 June 2015). 

On 1 March 2011, the President ratified a gender identity law, said to be one of the most advanced in the world, which simplifies the process of sex and name change for transgender people. Same-sex couples have been permitted to adopt since 1 March 2016.

The country, while still influenced by Roman Catholicism, has progressively become more accepting of same-sex relationships and homosexuality. The 2019 Eurobarometer opinion survey suggests that 74% of the Portuguese population supports same-sex marriage and that approximately 80% believes that LGBT people should enjoy equal rights. 

Women in Government

The average percentage of women holding positions in Parliament between 1997 to 2019 was 25.65 percent with a minimum of 13.04 percent in 1997 and a maximum of 38.7 percent in 2019. Currently, women hold 38.7 percent of the seats in Parliament.

For comparison, the world average in 2019 based on 188 countries is 22.85 percent. In the United States women hold 23.4% of the seats in the House of Representatives and 26% in the Senate as of the date of this post.


The act of prostitution is legal in Portugal, but organized prostitution is not. This means that it is illegal for a third party to profit from, promote, encourage or facilitate the prostitution of another.


Gambling is legal in Portugal. There are nine cities with gambling facilities and each city has just one casino. The largest gambling city in Portugal is Póvoa de Varzim with one casino, Casino da Póvoa, that has 20 table games and 695 gaming, slot and video poker machines.

The largest casino in Portugal is Casino Estoril, which has 35 table games and 1,200 gaming and video poker machines.

Online gambling was legalized in 2015. The new law requires all online gambling operators to obtain a license and pay taxes to the Portuguese state. The online gambling tax is 44%, and yes, it is considered to be quite high. Because of that, many economists projected that the online business would decline, but it was quite the opposite. Today, there are many new companies lining up to apply for an online gaming license.

Legal Age for Consensual Sex

The age of consent, or the minimum age at which an individual is considered legally old enough to consent to sexual participation, is 14 years old. Portugal’s statutory rape law is violated when an individual has consensual sexual contact with a person under the age of 14.

It is also illegal to perform sexual acts with a minor between 14 and 16 when taking advantage of their inexperience.

Portugal does not have a ‘close-in-age’ exemption to the age of consent laws. This means that it is possible for two people under the age of 14, who willingly engage in intercourse, to both be prosecuted for statutory rape. Likewise, if one participant is 13 years old and the other is 14 or 15, both will be prosecuted if they willingly participate in intercourse. For comparison, United States federal law establishes the age of 12 as the minimum age of consent, while the age at which there are no restrictions for consensual sexual activities is 18 (sex with someone 12-18 is not illegal per se, but can still be open to prosecution under certain circumstances).

Legal Drinking Age

There are two legal drinking ages. You must be 16 to consume beer and wine, and 18 to consume all other types of alcoholic beverages (spirits).

By the way, 18 also happens to be the legal driving age.

The Right to Die

Circling back to this issue; in February of this year, Portugal’s parliament voted in favor of allowing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The landmark vote means Portugal is poised to become one of the few countries in the world permitting the procedures. However, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa could still attempt to block it, but parliament can override his veto by voting a second time for approval. The Portuguese president doesn’t have executive powers. [UPDATE as of January 30, 2021: The Portuguese Parliament has approved the decriminalization of medically assisted death. The vote was 136 in favor to 78 opposed.]

Euthanasia — when a doctor directly administers fatal drugs to a patient — is legal in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the US, some states permit medically-assisted suicide — where patients administer the lethal drug themselves, under medical supervision.

The law will require two doctors, at least one of them a specialist in the relevant illness, and a psychiatrist to sign off on the patient’s request to die. The case would then go to a Verification and Evaluation Committee, which could approve or turn down the procedure.

The process would be postponed if it is legally challenged or if the patient loses consciousness. Health practitioners can refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds. Oversight is provided by the General-Inspectorate for Health.

To discourage people from traveling to Portugal to end their life, the bills all stipulate that patients must either be Portuguese citizens or legal residents.

The more I learn about Portugal, the more impressed and amazed I become! The Portuguese people are surprisingly progressive and practical. They embrace modern ideas that reflect a well-balanced, open, and ever-evolving society.

I hope you found this as interesting as I did. If you have any thoughts or reactions, I encourage you to share them in the comments section below.

Won and I are off to Porto again! We are excited to return to this wonderful city. When we were there in June, we didn’t feel like we had enough time to do it justice especially since the focus was securing our residence permits. If you would like to refresh your memory or, if you are new to my blog and haven’t read about that trip, please click here and here.

Until next week, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch!

From Portugal with love,


Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

20 thoughts on “How Progressive is Portugal?

  1. Everything was all cool and then… “It is also illegal to perform sexual acts with a minor between 14 and 16 when taking advantage of their inexperience.” Had to wrap my head around that one. 🤔


  2. Gosh, can Portugal be any more appealing? I’ve read that Europe has definitely become more secular, while the USA seems to be more influenced by evangelicals/religion. I wish we could retire Europe/Portugal now, rather than in 8 years which is our timeline. Fingers crossed that the USA can change course soon.


    1. Couldn’t agree more with your comment about Europe and the USA. Hang in there, hopefully travel will become safe again next year, and when it does, the time will pass more quickly. In the meantime you’re learning more and more about Portugal. 👍😁❤️


  3. Hi Beth. What a great place to be living. Progressive and practical for certain, and the maturity level of the country is well above that of the US. But that’s true of all of Europe, right? Will the US ever get out of its adolescence?!


  4. Hi Beth, I wrote a long reply yesterday that then disappeared into the ether before I could post. (Actually I left the site to look up a statistic.) This actually was one of your more interesting posts and there have been many wonderful ones by you. Thanks for doing all the research. Portugal does indeed seem to be quite progressive in the many areas you outlined. I tried to find that abortions per 1000 women (of reproductive age) for Portugal but couldn’t find it- only that it lumps Portugal into Europe at around 15 per 1000 women.

    I’ve been interested in abortion and the birth rate for quite a while. For instance Italy, a strongly Catholic country, brought the birth rate (and i.e. the abortion rate) down greatly in the past 20 years or so by pushing education. There may be other factors but more women in Italy have graduate degrees than anywhere in the world.

    But the great winner is the Netherlands. They have an abortion rate of 5-7 per 1000 vs. the US of 14 per 1000. How did they do it? They legalized abortion in the 1960s, pushed sex education, made contraceptives readily available and also instituted universal health care, so that the population can access all of the above. The dread where the US is heading- completely in the wrong direction in all the above categories.

    But just by simply watching the pandemic numbers tells me Portugal has it’s act together! Enjoy!!


    1. Really interesting information, Taffy! Thanks for sharing those statistics. It is fascinating what education and a progressive, practical approach can do in a society. We are learning that Portugal is impressively progressive in many areas, but still has a way to go in others (i.e. administrative bureaucracy). Nothing is perfect, but so far, so good!! Stay safe my friend.


  5. Right on! An important topic — especially for us expats and immigrants, fugitives and refugees — that confirms our decision to relocate to Portugal nearly four years ago!


  6. I tried contacting you directly by email … but, evidently, it didn’t go through. Your permission is requested, Beth, to reprint this article — with all credit and link to your blog given — in the September issue of Portugal Living Magazine. Here is a link where you can read more about the magazine and subscribe at no charge:

    Thanks for your consideration and best wishes on all of your writing!

    Até logo,

    Bruce Joffe
    Publisher/Creative Director
    Portugal Living Magazine


      1. Expect it in your email inbox the first week of June, Beth.

        May we reprint your “How Progressive is Portugal” in our second (September) issue?


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