updated 10/19/2006 6:07:01 PM ET 2006-10-19T22:07:01

Portugal took a major step toward legalizing abortion on Thursday as parliament approved holding a national referendum on the issue in this conservative Roman Catholic country with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

Abortion is currently allowed only in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape, fetus malformation or if a mother’s health is at risk. Voters now will decide whether to make abortion legal up to the 10th week of pregnancy.

No date has been set for the national referendum, which is expected to take place early next year. Before a date can be set, the Constitutional Court and the president both need to rubber stamp the proposal.

“Our current laws say that a woman who aborts should be criminally prosecuted,” Socialist legislator Alberto Martins said in parliament ahead of Thursday’s vote. “This is, in the 21st century and in Europe, an unfair, cruel, retrograde and irrational stance.”

In Europe, only Poland and Ireland have similarly restrictive rules on abortion, while Malta forbids abortion altogether.

Those Portuguese women who can afford it travel to abortion clinics across the border in Spain. Even so, abortion rights groups claim around 10,000 women are hospitalized every year in Portugal due to complications arising from botched backstreet abortions.

“We have to end this blight of backstreet abortions,” Prime Minister Jose Socrates said last weekend. “It makes Portugal a backward country.”

Still, it is not entirely certain whether voters will agree. The powerful Roman Catholic Church stands firmly against legalization.

A 1998 referendum on legalizing abortion was declared void because of a poor turnout, but with the “No” vote winning narrowly. More than 50 percent of the country’s registered voters need to cast ballots for a referendum to be valid.

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