LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Removing constitutional protections for the unborn in Ireland would give the government a “blank check” to impose any abortion regime it wanted, according to the head of the bishops’ bioethics committee.

“If society accepts that one human being has the right to end the life of another, then it is no longer possible to claim the right to life as a fundamental human right for anybody,” said Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, in a statement released on Sunday.

On Saturday, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said he will campaign to remove the Eight Amendment of Ireland’s Constitution, which explicitly protects the rights of the unborn child.

A referendum will be held later this year, asking the people of the country if they want to repeal the amendment, which was added to the constitution in 1983.

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Ireland 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.

The Irish legislature has outlined several options that could be legislated if the pro-life protections are removed from the constitution, including:

  • abortion up to twelve weeks, with no restriction as to reason
  • abortion right up to the time of birth, if doctors believe the baby is likely to die before birth or shortly afterwards
  • abortion on the grounds of risk to the life or health of the woman, with health defined in such a way as to include mental health

According to a poll released on Friday by the Irish Times, 56 percent of the population favor repealing the Eighth Amendment if the first proposal – abortion up to 12 weeks – were the alternative. Only 29 percent were opposed to repealing the amendment under any circumstances.

“These proposals are significantly more liberal than the current law in Britain, where slightly more than one in five unborn children are aborted every year,” Doran said.

Britain – except for Northern Ireland – does not allow abortion after the 24th week of pregnancy, unless it “is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health” of the mother. Irish women seeking abortions usually travel to the United Kingdom.

(Northern Ireland has its own abortion legislation, outlawing the procedure in most cases.)

“In Britain, all abortion is theoretically on the grounds of health, but the extension of the health ground to include risk to the mental health of the mother provides, in practice, for abortion on demand,” Doran said.

The bishop also noted that if the pro-life amendment were removed, the government would be left entirely free to introduce whatever abortion regime it chooses, “now or at any time in the future.”

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“Promises made before the referendum would not in any sense be binding.  What the Committee is asking is that citizens would give the government a blank check,” he said. “I have never been comfortable writing blank checks.”

Doran was also concerned that according to some of the proposals, abortion would be provided through primary care physicians and family doctors.

“This would radically change the ethos of medicine, which was always about healing the sick and preventing disease. Abortion has nothing to do with healthcare,” he said.

“There is nothing in the job-description of your family doctor that would suggest, even for a moment, that he or she should be involved in taking human life.  Some doctors may accept this, but many will be greatly troubled by it and they need our support,” the bishop continued.

The debate over abortion is only the latest sign of the diminishing influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which has been hit hard by the clerical abuse scandal.

Currently, just over 78 percent of the population describes itself as Catholic, a sharp decline from the 84 percent who said they were Catholic in 2011. Of that number, less than 30 percent attend Mass every week; it was over 87 percent just 20 years ago.

The most striking example of the loss of Church influence was in 2015, when Ireland held a referendum on same-sex marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice.

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Doran insists abortion is not a matter of religion.

“We Christians are by no means the only ones who see the hand of God at work in the formation and coming to birth of a new child. It is something which we share with Jews and Muslims and in varying degrees with people of other religious traditions,” the bishop said.

“Modern embryology now makes it clear that there is no conflict between faith and reason.  The new human being which will be born as your baby after nine months, begins at fertilization.  The genetic identity of the new child is already there from the very beginning.  Everything else is simply natural development,” Doran said.

The bishop said some well-meaning people may vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment out of a feeling of compassion, but they must reflect on where true compassion lies.

“Is it compassionate to a woman in challenging circumstances to say: ‘Maybe you should consider ending the life of your child in order to ease your pain or trauma.’  Is there nothing better that we could do?” Doran asked. “It is morally good if it moves us to act in solidarity with somebody else, but that action has to be consistent with the truth.”

The bishop concluded by saying that whatever the results of the referendum, there will continue to be a need to support women facing crisis pregnancies.

Doran said he is exploring ways to expand the Church’s crisis pregnancy counseling, so “we might be able to provide some additional supports which would empower women to choose life, not just for the baby, but for their own sake as well.”