LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Bishops in Ireland on Tuesday issued a strong statement in support of the nation’s constitutional protection for the unborn, just as the country is set to vote on whether to legalize abortion in the country.

The Irish cabinet is expected to set a date for the referendum on the repeal of the Eight Amendment of the Irish Constitution this week, although the government has indicated the vote will take place in late May.

The Eighth Amendment was passed by a referendum in 1983, becoming Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland.

Ireland currently has some of the most robust protections for the unborn in the European Union, although most European abortion laws are more restrictive than those in the United States.

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According to a Kantar Millward Brown poll published on Feb. 18, nearly 63 percent of the respondents favored repealing the protections for the unborn, although the poll showed strong support for limiting abortion at 12 weeks.

In their statement, the bishops said that everyone has a right to life, and it is not granted by any law.

“For us as a society to now declare that any category of human being should have that right taken from them would be a shocking step.  It effectively says that unborn children do not exist or, if they do, they do not count.  That is a manifest injustice,” the statement read.

The bishops are currently holding their Spring 2018 general meeting in Maynooth, and they acknowledged the conversation about unborn life is “sensitive, delicate and, indeed, painful for many.”

Revelations about clerical sexual abuse has left public confidence in the Church at its lowest level in the history of Ireland.

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Once the most Catholic nations in Europe, in 2015 Ireland held a referendum on same-sex marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice.

Despite the changing religious attitudes in Ireland, the bishops insist the right to life is not a religious issue, but one of human rights, which “makes sense to people of all faiths and none.”

“The scientific evidence about the beginning of human life has never been clearer,” the bishops said, noting that the knowledge about the workings of DNA and the evidence of ultrasound images of children in the earliest weeks in the womb “should be making us more committed than ever to the protection of unborn life.”

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“It is, therefore, a great irony that we in Ireland are for the first time in our history losing our clarity about the right to life of the unborn,” the bishops’ statement said.

“Article 40.3.3 is a declaration of equality and respect for human life.  It represents, at the very foundations and substructure of our laws, a conviction that all human life is worth cherishing equally,” the bishops said. “To repeal this Article would leave unborn children at the mercy of whatever permissive abortion laws might be introduced in Ireland in the future.”

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The bishops also said expectant mothers need and deserve support, especially if it is a crisis pregnancy.

“A compassionate society will do all in its power to support and love the mother and baby and encourage responsible support from fathers,” the bishops said.

The referendum is due to take place just three months before Pope Francis is expected to visit the country during the World Meeting of Families, which is taking place in Dublin from August 21-26, 2018.