Pope Francis compares abortion to hiring a hit-man

The head of the Catholic Church has come out with a clear statement of his organisation's opinion of abortion.

Speaking at a Vatican-sponsored anti-abortion conference on Saturday, the pontiff stated that abortion was wrong in any instance, including when the foetus is terminally ill or has extreme birth defects.

"Is it licit to throw away a life to resolve a problem?" he asked attendees. "Is it licit to hire a hit man to resolve a problem?"

Francis condemned decisions to terminate based on prenatal testing, saying a human being is "never incompatible with life".

"Taking care of these children helps parents to grieve and not only think of it as a loss, but as a step on a path taken together," Francis said.

The church has condemned abortion as a "moral evil" since the 1st century, deemed worthy of automatic excommunication, applicable also to partners who support abortion decisions and medical staff involved in the procedure.

However, Pope Francis has liberalised the church's rules around forgiveness of those involved in abortion, with all priests now capable of carrying out that rite, one previously reserved for bishops or special confessors.

Fierce debate around the merits and legality of abortion have swept the world after several states in the United States rolled back laws to make the practice illegal.

Abortion is currently a crime in New Zealand - women have to use a kind of 'legal loophole', and two doctors have to agree pregnancy would put her in physical or mental danger.

However this could be about to change. A Newshub-Reid Research Poll in March showed the majority of New Zealanders want abortion decriminalised, and in October last year the Law Commission gave the Government options for abortion reform.

Cabinet is now expected to pass a proposal which would lower the threshold for women to seek abortions to 20 weeks. This will then be sent to Parliament for a conscience vote.