Pope Francis has called on priests to pardon women who have abortions, and the doctors who perform them, during the upcoming Jubilee year - overruling hardline traditionalists within the Catholic Church.
"I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it," he said.
In a message outlining special measures for the Jubilee year starting in December, Francis said he knew that while "the tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness ... many others ... believe that they have no other option".
The Argentine pontiff said he was "well aware of the pressure" that some women were under to abort, adding that he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision".
Abortion is considered a particularly serious sin and is punishable under Canon law by excommunication, by which those guilty are expelled from the Church and considered to be condemned to Hell in the afterlife.
The Vatican had already said in May that abortion would be included among the sins pardonable during the Jubilee, but the original plan had been for a certain, limited number of priests to have the power to forgive.
Bishops are already able to authorise priests in their dioceses to forgive those who undergo or carry out abortions.
The hot-button topic has been the subject of increasingly fierce debate within the Church. In 2009 the Vatican drew heavy criticism after it supported a bishop who had excommunicated the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old girl who was given an abortion after her stepfather raped her.
Francis, 78, who has repeatedly urged the Church to show greater compassion, said priests should use "words of genuine welcome", as well as making sure those involved were aware of "the gravity of the sin committed".
The pontiff announced earlier this year a Jubilee year - traditionally a time for remission and forgiveness - which will run from December 8 to November 20 and be celebrated not only in the Vatican but in dioceses across the world.
Those in prison who have repented and want to make amends will also be eligible for a religious pardon.