Portugal's ruling Socialists on Monday dropped plans to further liberalize abortion after voters in this Roman Catholic country abstained massive-ly in a referendum on reform.

The party's leader in parliament, where the Socialists are just short of an outright majority, said that the party would not pursue the reform plan during the life of the current legislature which ends next year."The (political) conditions are not there for the process to continue," Francisco Assis told journalists after a meeting of the parliamentary party leadership.

The decision still needs to be ratified by all Socialist deputies, who were set to meet later on Monday, but political sources said that the outcome was not in doubt.

The abandonment had been expected after only one in three of the country's 8.5 million electorate bothered to vote on Sunday in Portugal's first ever referendum, well short of the 50 percent needed to make the result legally binding on parliament.

A wafer-thin majority of those who did cast a ballot opted against granting the right for women to abort on demand in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, adding to the pressure to maintain the status quo.

With Communist support, the Socialists had taken the first step toward removing the threat of three years of jail for illegal abortions in Portugal where legal terminations are limited to just a few hundred each year because of the stringent rules.

But final legislative approval was delayed awaiting Sunday's vote.

Despite the overwhelming support of the parliamentary party for reform, the issue had been politically delicate for the Socialists given the personal opposition of Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, a practicing Roman Catholic.

The conservative opposition opposed any change to the existing law, dating from 1984.

The result defied the predictions of the opinion pollsters who had forecast a win for the "yes" vote. But the biggest shock was the level of abstentions. - even higher than the 64 percent recorded at the last elections for the European Parliament.

The result augurs badly for two other referendums set for later this year.