Storm as Pope allows priests to forgive the 'sin of abortion'
Pope Francis has declared he is allowing all priests in the Church's upcoming Year of Mercy to absolve women of the "sin of abortion" if they repent with a "contrite heart".
But leading sexual health advice organisation Marie Stopes last night dismissed the Pope's move, saying that no woman should have to seek forgiveness for an abortion.
"Abortion services are a normal and necessary part of reproductive healthcare, and one in three women in the UK will have an abortion in her lifetime.
"We do not believe that any woman needs to seek forgiveness for making a considered choice about whether and when to have children," a Marie Stopes spokesperson said.
Under current Catholic teaching, women who procure an abortion are de facto excommunicated from the Church.
The special arrangements will apply in the forthcoming Holy Year, which runs from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.
Maria Madise of Voice of the Family - a pro-life organisation affiliated to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child - said she was concerned by the Pope's plan.
"The Catholic Church's teaching on abortion is crystal clear and Pope Francis himself has been very clear about the wrongness of abortion, both as Pope and before that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
"Permission for ordinary priests to absolve abortion without consulting their bishops is not unprecedented and has been allowed in many places.
"However, we would be concerned that a too widespread permission could be misinterpreted as the Church softening Her teaching on abortion that it is the taking of the life of an innocent human being.
"It is very important in the context of next month's Synod on the Family that there should be no ambiguity about the Church's teaching .
The Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Midwives, Breedagh Hughes, said the Pope's changes to Catholic practice would have no impact on the professional work of midwives in Northern Ireland.
She said: "I've never heard anyone in my profession say that the Pope had influenced their views on whether or not they were comfortable with abortion."
She said that while the 1967 Abortion Act has statutory protection in place guaranteeing a right to 'conscientious objection' for medical professionals who did not wish to participate in abortion-related procedures, there was no such provision in Northern Ireland law.
Midwives in Northern Ireland who do not wish to take part in abortion or abortion-related procedures are generally accommodated informally by their managers, she said.
"Every woman deserves the best quality of care.
"It would be far from ideal for any woman having an abortion to have someone judgmental looking after her."
Anti-abortion group Precious Life declined to comment.