Swiss abortion poll angers bishops

ZURICH, Switzerland -- Catholic bishops in Switzerland have deplored an overwhelming decision by voters to legalise abortion.

The referendum result on Sunday decriminalised abortions carried out up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

The Swiss people accepted the proposal to relax the law by margin of nearly three to one, bringing legislation in line with most other European countries. The new law takes effect on October 1.

More than 80 percent of voters rejected a rival proposal to ban abortion completely.

Justice Minister Ruth Metzler, who had campaigned for the abortion proposal that her Christian Democrat party opposed, said the referendum result was "a historic victory for women."

However, the Roman Catholic Swiss bishops' conference, representing the largest religion in Switzerland, said it was disappointed by the vote.

"The fact that from now on it is possible to end unborn life during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy without punishment opens the door for further dangers to the respect of life both at the start -- extension of the period for abortion, removing of a foetus with possible handicaps etc -- and at its end -- euthanasia," it said in a statement.

"The Swiss bishops appeal to the conscience of each individual. Not everything that the law allows is necessarily morally acceptable."

According to data from the year 2000, 44.1 percent of the Swiss population is Roman Catholic, 36.6 percent is Protestant, 11.7 percent is without religion and 2.3 percent is Muslim.

The current 60-year-old law only allows pregnancy to be terminated if the mother's health, including her mental health, is in danger.

Doctors who carry out illegal abortions faced five years in prison, while women could be sentenced to a three-year term.

But in a country where women were only given the vote in 1971, few prosecutions have taken place since 1988.

Five physicians have been convicted for ignoring the abortion rules in the past nine years.

Government statistics estimate between 12,000 and 13,000 abortions are carried out every year.

Figures suggest one in nine pregnancies is now terminated despite the risk of a prison sentence for the woman and doctor.

Under the new law, a woman can have an abortion after making a written request in which she invokes a "state of distress" which makes it impossible for her to have the baby.

She is then obliged to have counselling with a specialist before the operation can take place.

Britain, Spain and the Netherlands have the most liberal abortion laws allowing termination to take place up to 22 weeks into the pregnancy, while France, Italy, Greece, Denmark and Norway sanction a 10-week deadline.

Portugal, Ireland, and Malta have the strictest laws where abortion is virtually banned.