Portugal's Socialist government started drafting legislation Monday that would allow women to choose an abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy, saying voters supported its plans to reduce restrictions despite a low turnout in a referendum on the issue.

Abortion now is allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if a woman's health is at risk. In cases of rape it is permitted through the 16th week, and there is no time restriction if an abortion is the only way of saving a pregnant woman's life.

The government cast aside pleas from the Roman Catholic Church, which wants to keep restrictions in place. More than 90 percent of Portuguese say they are Catholic.

The Socialist Party's parliamentary leader Alberto Martins said he was starting work on new legislation immediately with Prime Minister Jose Socrates, the party leader.

The center-left government failed to obtain formal public endorsement for more liberal policies in a national referendum Sunday when too few voters turned out to make the ballot valid. More than 50 percent of registered voters must cast their ballots for a referendum to be binding.

However, Socrates said the 60-40 victory for his proposal among those who did vote granted him legitimacy to enact the changes through a bill in Parliament, where his party has an overall majority.

Opposition parties said they would not stand in the way of a bill allowing women to ask for abortions up to the 10th week of pregnancy, as the government proposes.

Turnout in Sunday's vote was just under 44 percent. Two previous referendums — one on the same abortion issue and another on devolving power to administrative regions, both in 1998 — also failed because of a low turnout.

Politicians and analysts struggled to make sense of the lack of public enthusiasm. Daily paper Diario de Noticias laid out eight possible explanations in an editorial, adding: "There are many possible interpretations of the lack of interest."

The head of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, Bishop Jorge Ortiga, said in a communique the Catholic Church would maintain its opposition to abortion rights, saying "life can not be put to the vote."

Portugal's current legislation places it in a minority in the European Union with Poland, Ireland and Malta, where faith has also trumped political activism.

In the 23 other EU nations, abortion is permitted within much broader limits. Women can ask for abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy in Britain and up to the 12th week in Germany, France and Italy.

Socrates, the prime minister, said he wants Portugal to adopt attitudes prevalent in more developed EU countries.

He said the new law would follow the example of legislation elsewhere in the EU, including mandatory counselling for women who want to terminate their pregnancy.

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