Portuguese lawmakers on Thursday began considering decriminalising euthanasia, a move narrowly rejected two years ago but with a good chance of passing this time around thanks to a parliamentary majority.

Hundreds of anti-euthanasia protesters demonstrated in front of parliament as debate opened on five proposals on "medically assisted death" put forward by the governing socialist party.

"Yes to life, no to death," protesters chanted, brandishing banners with slogans such as "Life First" and "Don't kill, heal!".

In May 2018, the parliament rejected a similar initiative by a narrow majority.

But the socialist ranks were boosted at elections last October, swinging the balance in favour of decriminalisation.

The Catholic Church, which predominates in Portugal, is campaigning against the draft bills both among its faithful and those of other religious denominations.

Unlike in 2018, the Church is now advocating a referendum on the issue in the belief that a majority would reject euthanasia, but parliament is unlikely to back the idea.

"All the proposals will be adopted because we now have a parliamentary majority in favour of decriminalising euthanasia," said neurologist Bruno Maia, who heads up a movement championing "the right to die with dignity".

But the results of the parliamentary voting are not guaranteed, as the socialists and main centre-right opposition Social Democrats have a free vote on the issue with no party instructions.

Nonetheless Prime Minister Antonio Costa and opposition leader Rui Rio both support euthanasia.

Hundreds of euthanasia opponents protested outside parliament
Hundreds of euthanasia opponents protested outside parliament AFP / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA

Along with the Catholic church, several organisations representing doctors and nurses oppose the move to decriminalise.

So too does the National Council of Ethics for the Life Sciences, a consultative body independent of parliament that opposes any change to the current law, which allows for the ending of medical treatment in some cases.

The socialists' propose introducing "special conditions for the practice of non-punishable euthanasia".

Other proposals have been put forward by the hard-left the Left Bloc, the People Animals Nature party (PAN), the Greens and a liberal deputy.

If they are approved at the first parliamentary reading they will all be put in a single text for a final vote, expected to take place before the summer.

Any new bill must then be signed into law by Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a conservative who has not publicly taken a position on the issue and who has the power of veto.

So far Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are the only European countries to have legalised euthanasia.

The most recent Portuguese opinion poll on euthanasia is from 2017, when 46.1 percent of respondents said they backed it with 27.4 percent opposed.

In another question, 44.1 percent said they were in favour of a referendum on the issue, with 32.7 percent opposed.