The country’s Catholic bishops have described the Government’s abortion legislation as an affront to conscience.

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has called for healthcare professionals and pharmacists who oppose it to be allowed opt out on the grounds of their fundamental right of conscientious objection.

The Oireachtas has begun to debate the Regulation of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill in the Dáil, which seeks to legalise abortion services in Ireland.

The bishops say the bill poses a very real practical and moral dilemma for healthcare professionals who believe in the fundamental human right to life and in their own responsibility to serve life.

They say they are concerned, firstly, for pharmacists who the bill presumes will routinely stock and dispense drugs whose specific purpose is to end human life in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

They say no provision is being made for pharmacists working in hospitals or in private practice to opt out on the grounds of conscientious objection.

The bishops criticise the draft legislation's requirement for doctors and nurses who opt out of providing abortion to refer the patient to a colleague who will perform the procedure.

While this may have the appearance of respecting freedom of conscience, they say, in reality, it requires a healthcare professional to co-operate in what he or she sincerely believes is doing harm to one patient and taking the life of another.

The bishops ask the Government and wider society to respect the right of all healthcare professionals and pharmacists to exercise conscientious objection not only by refusing to participate actively in abortion but also by declining to refer their patients to others for abortion.

They say healthcare professionals, pharmacists and ancillary healthcare workers, should not face legal, professional or financial penalties or any form of discrimination for their commitment to respect life.

They propose that Ireland adopt the model used New Zealand where healthcare professionals opt in to the provision of abortion if they wish and where conscientious objectors are not obliged to refer their patients to others for abortion.

The bishops say that by following this approach, the Government could demonstrate respect for the freedom of conscience of healthcare professionals.

They say the fundamental right to freedom of conscience is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that conscience is that private space in the heart of every person in which the truth is discovered and accepted.