An episcopal statement was published Wednesday at the end of the winter meeting of the bishops´ conference held here.
The government has announced plans for a national referendum on a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion except in cases when the woman would die by carrying her pregnancy to term.
The abortion debate galvanized the Irish public in 1992, when the attorney general secured an injunction to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from traveling to England for an abortion. The Supreme Court overruled the injunction because the girl had threatened to commit suicide.
The bishops recognize that the present legislation allows the risk of suicide to be a reason for abortion, making the law highly relative. In this connection, they welcome the proposal promoted by the referendum, which will restrict it.
In the past, some groups have been opposed to the proposed referendum, saying it would not totally outlaw abortion.
"We understand the reluctance of many who are opposed to abortion to vote for a measure which does not seem to vindicate the right to life of the unborn from the moment of conception," the bishops explain.
"However, it is our conviction that the new proposal represents a considerable improvement on the existing situation, and that it does not in itself deny or devalue the worth and dignity of the human embryo prior to implantation," they continue.
"Catholic voters should feel free in conscience to support this measure, even if it is viewed as less than might have been desired," the bishops state.
"We are of the view that a clear legal prohibition on procured abortion, as set out in this proposal, represents an important step towards ensuring adequate protection for the life of the unborn," the bishops continue.
The Irish bishops go further than the referendum proposal, stating: "We believe that the existing rights of the unborn from the moment of conception, under Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, need to be reinforced by precise legislative measures."
In particular, the bishops call for much clearer protection of the unborn, especially at the embryonic stage, in order to avoid excesses, such as are now being manifested in the areas of cloning, human embryo research and assisted human reproduction.
"It is of vital importance that embryos are never treated other than as human persons whose inherent worth and dignity are valued and vindicated," the bishops write.
The bishops also express their "continuing commitment to supporting any woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy," especially, those "who feel that abortion is the only option."
The bishops "warmly endorse the work of CURA, which was set up to ensure that any woman unhappily pregnant has easy access to the help she needs."