Swiss voters appeared set to approve proposals to ease a 60-year-old anti-abortion law by a large margin, according to partial results.
In about 10 of the country's 23 full cantons (regions), nearly three of four voters were in favor of government proposals to decriminalize abortions carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, an official count indicated.
The results so far included several conservative cantons in central Switzerland, which have traditionally taken a tough line on abortion.
A separate counter-proposal aimed at toughening the law introduced in 1942 was heading for overwhelming rejection, with about 83 percent voting against so far, according to the partial count.
Officials said the final result was expected later on Sunday afternoon.
Voters were facing two divergent proposals, one softening the law by formally tolerating a 12-week abortion period, the other toughening it by ruling out abortion for anything but an immediate threat to the mother's health.
A recent opinion poll by Swiss television had indicated 63 percent of voters would support the government proposal for more tolerance, while 57 percent were prepared to reject the tougher motion brought by private, Catholic-inspired, antiabortion groups.
Abortion is currently punishable by a prison sentence or fine in Switzerland, unless it is carried out because of a threat to the health or well-being of the mother.
But the law has different interpretations around the country's decentralized health and judicial systems, and the government estimates that about 16,000 abortions are carried out legally every year.
Many Swiss cantons take into account social conditions, while about nine rural, devout Roman Catholic cantons, mainly in Switzerland's traditional central heartland, enforce a stricter line.
The government proposal, which gained parliament backing, aims to decriminalize abortions carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, provided the woman makes a written request and submits to counseling and medical advice.
It would also allow abortions after the 12-week period if the pregnancy proves to be a grave danger to health.
Voters also have to decide on a separate proposal dubbed "For the Mother and the Child", brought by religious-backed "pro-life" groups and some politicians, which aims to make the ban part of the constitution.
It rules out the right to an abortion and exposes women and doctors to criminal prosecution unless there is "imminent and physical" danger to the mother's life which cannot be cured in any other way.
It makes adoption the only alternative for women who become pregnant as a result of rape.
Swiss Roman Catholic bishops have said they support the basis for the "Mother and Child" initiative, but gave no voting recommendation.
About one pregnancy in eight in Switzerland is aborted, according to health officials, and the last conviction under the abortion law took place 14 years ago.
Three previous attempts to change the law in the 1970s and 1980s were rejected in referendums.
© AFP 2002