VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis said Christians must defend life at all stages, especially before birth, and he praised efforts to assist pregnant women in difficulty and prevent the destruction of human embryos.

“It is necessary to reassert the strongest opposition to every direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenseless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the definition of innocence,” the pope said April 11. “Every Christian is responsible for this evangelical witness: to protect life in all its stages with courage and love.”

Pope Francis made his remarks in a meeting with almost 500 Italian pro-life activists, whom he thanked “for the witness you offer by promoting and defending human life from the time of conception.”

“Human life is sacred and inviolable,” the pope said. “Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, the right to life, which is not subordinate to any condition, neither qualitative nor economic, much less ideological.”

Speaking two days after Italy’s constitutional court overturned a law banning the use of donated sperm or eggs in artificial fertility treatments, the pope said: “One of the gravest risks to which we are exposed in our time is the divorce between economics and morality, between the possibilities offered by a market supplied with every technological novelty and the elementary ethical norms of human nature, which is increasingly neglected.”

Pope Francis praised the pan-European “One of Us” project, which calls for an end to European Union financing of research and other activities that involve the destruction of human embryos. Italy’s constitutional court is expected to rule later this year on a law against screening embryos for genetic disorders before they are implanted in the womb.

The pope also praised an Italian initiative, “Progetto Gemma” (“Project Bud”), which assists pregnant women in difficulty and facilitates adoption of their children as an alternative to abortion.

He said life should be defended “always with a style of neighborliness, of closeness, so that every woman may feel treated like a person, listened to, welcomed, accompanied.”