Pope John Paul II has become embroiled in a new controversy surrounding the working of the Italian abortion law which came into force six months ago.
The row centres on the clause which allows doctors working in State hospitals to register as "conscientious objectors" if they are unwilling to perform abortions.
Last week the Pope praised such doctors in a speech to the Italian Medical Assoiciation in which he made a strong attack on the law.
He said: "I want to express my admiration for all those in the health sector who, following the dictates of an informed conscience, each day know how to resist the flattery, the pressure, the threats and sometimes even physical violence in order not to stain themselves by an act which is in all ways harmful to that sacred possession which is human life."
However, there is now growing disquiet about the way in which the conscience clause is working following a case in southern Italy in which two doctors were gaoled after carrying out an abortion on a 17-year-old girl.
Both doctors had registered as conscientious objectors but had apparently performed the operation at a local private clinic.
The girl calimed that she was charged the equivalent of £960 for the operation and that she was told: "Bring the money tomorrow or we will telephone your parents and tell all."
About 600 doctors have registered under the clause since the Act became law. The Pope described them in his speech as "warriors under siege".
Now a campaign to change the law to enable women to get free abortions on demand has been launched by the small Radical Party, which has presented papers to organise their own referendum on the subject.
This follows a statement by Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, Archbishop of Florence, in which he urged the laity to use all legal means to get the law repealed: in effect this means to organise a referendum themselves.