VALLETTA (Reuters) -A large picture of an unborn baby was placed outside the office of Malta's prime minister on Sunday as demonstrators called on the government to halt plans to amend the country's strict anti-abortion laws.
The protest, the biggest in years, attracted several thousand people including Malta's top Catholic bishop and the leader of the conservative opposition, but was led by a former centre-left president, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca.
"We are here to be the voice of the unborn child," said 19-year-old university student Maria Formosa, one of the speakers at the rally. "Through abortion, life is always lost."
Some of those present carried placards reading slogans such as "Keep abortion out of Malta" and "Protect our children". They also chanted "No to abortion, yes to life".
Traditionally Catholic Malta is the only member of the European Union which bans abortion in all circumstances, even when a woman's life or health is endangered by her pregnancy.
Last week, Health Minister Chris Fearne presented an amendment in parliament that would make doctors no longer risk up to four years' imprisonment if their intervention to help women with severe health issues causes the end of a pregnancy.
To date, no doctor has been prosecuted on such charges.
The centre-right opposition, the powerful Catholic Church and some NGOs have described the amendment as not needed and as paving the way for a full liberalisation of abortion, a claim rejected by the ruling centre-left Labour party.
Prime Minister Robert Abela's government holds a comfortable majority and no dissent has appeared within its ranks, but opinion polls show a big majority against abortion, particularly among older people.
No one from the government made any comment in response to the protest on Sunday.
The move to change abortion rules comes after a U.S. tourist, Andrea Prudente, was refused a request in June to terminate a non-viable pregnancy after she began to bleed profusely.
Her doctors said her life was at risk and she was eventually transferred to Spain where she had an abortion. She later sued the Malta government, calling on the courts to declare that banning abortion in all circumstances breaches human rights.
The case has not yet come to trial.
(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Alvise Armellini and David Holmes)