Politicians in democracies dislike dealing with questions on which their supporters hold passionate and diverging opinions. There is always the risk that the group the politician does not side with will be so upset they will use the next election to administer punishment.

Only the foolhardy and those in safe seats need not worry and it explains why there are so few votes in the world’s parliaments on what can broadly be called matters of conscience.

In Australia the fate of the late Victorian liberal Liberal MHR Barry Simon still looms in political memories. He fell victim to a campaign against him by Right to Life supporters in his marginal seat after casting a vote in favour of a woman’s right to abortion.

Wherever possible those in marginal seats would prefer not to be forced to make a choice on such questions. Although the current Parliament has been notable for having two conscience votes – on the legalisation of the abortion drug RU486 and the use of stem cells in scientific research – there have been few cries of protest at the Cabinet decision to prevent a federal parliamentary vote on its decision to veto an ACT Government bill to legitimise same-sex relationships.

With an election only six months or so away, marginal seat holders are relieved at being able to avoid committing themselves one way or the other.

That legislating on matters of morality is a universal problem was shown at the weekend when Portugal went to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether abortion should be made legal.

Prime Minister José Sócrates, leader of the center-left Socialist Party, tried to avoid any backlash against his new government by letting the people decide although the main conclusion is that most people simply don’t care.

Only 44% of the country’s 8.9 million registered voters bothered to cast a vote. That was well short of the 50% participation figure set by Portuguese law for a referendum result to become binding but up on the 32% who turned out to vote at a similar referendum nine years ago.

Of those who did vote at the weekend, almost 60% had approved the proposal allowing women to choose an abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy. Just over 40% opposed it.

Mr Sócrates said he was undeterred by the low turnout and promised to enact more-liberal abortion laws in the country where 90% of people say they are Catholic. The wisdom of this “courageous” decision will be determined when he next faces a general election.

In Australia the idea of parliament initiated referenda has not proved popular. Labor used it to choose a national anthem but referendums have generally been confined to constitutional matters.

An exception was the Federal Government insisting that it would only provide funds to turn Toowoomba’s sewage in to drinking water if the people voted in favour. Last year the ratepayers decided by a vote of 62% to 38% and that was the end of that.

And the end of a promise by Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to let the people of SE Queensland similarly choose if they wanted to drink recycled water. Caught between the Toowoomba No vote and a drought, Beattie decided that his government would have to make the unpopular decision.