WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s lawmakers on Thursday opened a divisive debate on changing the restrictive anti-abortion law, among Europe’s toughest, in this predominantly Catholic nation.

The 10-month-old conservative government considers the current law to be too liberal. The policy of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s government focuses on various forms of support for large families in order to boost the country’s sagging birth rate.

The lower house discussed two opposing drafts proposed by civic groups. One, from the Stop Abortion group and supported by the government, calls for a total ban on abortions. The other one, backed by the opposition, is seeking to allow abortions through the 12th week of pregnancy, like in many European Union nations.

The lawmakers will decide later Thursday whether to send the drafts for fine-tuning in special commissions.

The house is dominated by the ruling Law and Justice party whose members declare attachment to the Catholic Church and to its insistence that human life has to be protected from conception until natural death. Observers say the government is bowing to the expectations of many Church leaders, whose support helped the party win elections last year.

Hundreds of activists from both sides of the abortion debate picketed in front of parliament. The anti-abortion group, some with small children in pushchairs, prayed aloud, while pro-abortion rights activists were clad in black to signify mourning over the restrictions in the availability of abortion.

Under 1993 legislation, abortion is currently allowed in Poland if the woman’s life or health is endangered, the pregnancy results from rape or incest or the fetus is irreparably damaged.

The law was criticized by both sides. Opponents of abortion said the law allows for termination of pregnancies when the fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome. Those seeking liberalization said the law leads to about 100,000 illegal abortions each year.

Poland began debating a draft law to ban all abortions and curb sex education as the country’s conservative government opens a new front in a cultural “counter-revolution” that has already roiled the country’s economy and justice system.

A total ban on abortion would put Poland, a country of 38 million, in a group of eight states that includes El Salvador, Guatemala and the Vatican.

With a pledge to pull the nation out of what her administration derides as the liberal European “mainstream,” Szydlo’s party has overhauled the Constitutional Court and public media and triggered the EU’s first-ever probe into the functioning of a member state’s democracy.

It has also launched a social-subsidy program aimed at families that helped prompt the nation’s first sovereign credit rating downgrade by Standard & Poor’s.

Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak defended the draft legislation, saying it would end practices that he compared to those pursued by Nazi Germany.

“I hope we’ll have a change that will mean we depart from eugenics, or practices that are identical with those in Germany at times of Hitler, where abortion was allowed due to illnesses,” Blaszczak told public radio 3 on Thursday.

He said that because the current law allows abortions in case of pre-natal defects in the fetus, it meant that 4/5 of the procedures are due to Down Syndrome.

The abortion ban would ask too much of some women, who’d be forced to endure suffering and risks to their health, according to Joanna Mucha, a lawmaker from opposition Civic Platform supports leaving the existing rules unchanged.

“We can’t force women to be heroic,” she said Thursday in parliament.

The proposed ban follows a call from Poland’s Roman Catholic leadership in March for the “full protection of the unborn,” which the church said wasn’t possible under the current law drafted as part of a political compromise in the 1990s.

Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a devout Catholic, vowed this month together with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stage a cultural “counter revolution” within the EU.

According to National Health Fund data, there were 1,812 abortions in Poland in 2014, about 500 more than a year earlier.

The Federation for Women and Family Planning, however, estimates the number of terminated pregnancies at around 80,000 per year, and perhaps as many as 200,000, including illegal procedures and those undergone by Poles who travel to other EU countries with more lenient laws, such as the neighboring Czech Republic.