Catholic Beliefs Cast Shadow Over Italian Abortions

"The young woman is a Romanian immigrant," said Dr. Mirella Paraghini, a gynecologist at San Filippo Neri hospital in Rome. "Her fetus is very malformed, but the doctors told her she has to keep it anyway."

That's not an unusual story in Italy, were seven out of 10 gynecologists refuse to perform abortions. In the southern region of Sicily, the number reaches 84 percent, according to the Italian Ministry of Health.

Law 194, which legalized abortion in 1978, allows doctors to claim "conscientious objection" to avoid having to carry out the procedure.

In a country where the majority of the hospitals are named after saints, many doctors, citing the Roman Catholic moral and religious code, decline to do abortions. Others refuse a task they consider psychologically demanding and professionally isolating.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter to Catholic bishops, reiterating the church's stance on the controversial subject. Titled "The Gospel of Life," the letter declared abortion to be murder.

"Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being," he wrote.

Dr. Giovanni Scambia, at the Hospital Agostino Gemelli in Rome, refuses to perform abortions.

"I am a Catholic, and I believe that a life is born from the very moment of conception," he said in an interview with ABC News. "Also, recent studies have discovered that the fetus is capable of perceiving the mother's emotions and sensing the outside world. Why should I kill it?"

Not all who refuse to do abortions adhere to Catholic principles or have moral issues.

"The few who accept to perform terminations are trapped in this role and never get enough credits to be promoted," said Maura Cossutts, Health Ministry counselor.

Defending careers or feeling the pressure of a system that is generally against it causes many doctors to think twice before ending a pregnancy.

One gynecologist who spoke anonymously to ABC News said he now refuses to perform abortions after years of actively campaigning for the right to end a pregnancy.

"I was the very first in my hospital to perform an abortion," he said. "At the time, I was working with a temporary contract. Then, when the moment came for me and all the others to be employed permanently, I was the one -- with another colleague who was also carrying out abortions -- to be left out. I had to go to court to be given a permanent contract."

Some doctors claim it is written on someone's face if he or she has just performed an abortion. It is psychologically exhausting they say, as if the doctor has personally taken on the mother's stress and sufferance.

But Paraghini, who still performs abortions, calls that a cop out.

"Come on," she said. "Do you still believe a mother takes this decision lightheartedly? I have never seen someone being serene about aborting.

"Claiming the clause is convenient," she added. "You don't need to bear the psychological trauma, nor have you to do extra workload for the same money. In many cases those performing abortions end up being discriminated against. The law doesn't provide incentives to doctors who do abortions."

According to the Health Ministry, the 70 percent of doctors who refuse to perform abortions reveal a serious obstacle to the smooth implementation of Law 194. But officials say the law itself is not the problem.

Italy's Health Minister, Livia Turco, has urged hospitals to ensure that the law is actually executed. Hospitals should support doctors who choose to carry out abortions and ensure that women are cared for, the Health Ministry stated in an official report on abortions.

Abortions in Italy decreased 3 percent overall between 2006 and 2007, but among the immigrant community the number of abortions is rising.

"The women who abort these days are mainly teenagers or immigrants, women who find it difficult to access contraception, sometimes because they are not aware of it," Paraghini said.

Another issue of debate is the morning-after pill. Still in an experimental phase in Italy, it is considered an abortion by some people.

Elisa Giovannelli, a London-based trader, recalls her experience at Hospital Mangiagalli in Milan, her hometown: "When I went in to ask for the morning-after pill, they asked me if I wanted a priest first."