The results of a consultation by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland have revealed that 73% of respondents are opposed to sex education resources covering “access to abortion”.
At the same time, guidance released by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland has confirmed that parents have the right to withdraw their children from this education from years 8-11, and can also do so with a child in year 12 with the child’s consent.
Under regulations brought forward by the Northern Ireland Secretary in June last year, the Department for Education was required to undertake a consultation prior to specifying the conditions under which a parent may withdraw their child from lessons which cover “access to abortion”.
Following public opposition to the regulations, in the guidance released by the Department of Education on 1 January 2024, the Department included provisions that will enable parents to withdraw children from sex education teaching and to teach this in a way that is in line with the ethos of the school.
For a child in years 8, 9, 10 or 11, a parent can withdraw their child from any or all aspects of “sexual and reproductive health and rights” education including “covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion”. For a child in year 12, parents can also withdraw them with the child’s consent.
The Department of Education also confirmed that “the legislation does not prevent teachers and pupils discussing and considering moral, ethical and spiritual issues alongside the age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate teaching and associated learning resources”, and that sex education content which includes resources about “accessing abortion” can be taught in a manner “aligned with the ethos of the school”.
Parents and the general public overwhelmingly reject teaching about abortion access in schools
According to the Report on the Outcome of Public Consultation released earlier this month, the consultation (which preceded the latest guidance) received a total of 13,461 responses, 47.16% of which came from parents and 32.48% from the general public.
The consultation asked respondents whether they agreed that Relationships and Sexuality Education should cover “prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion” and that this should be done in a morally neutral manner. 73.17% of respondents disagreed that sexual education should cover “prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion”.
The consultation also asked respondents whether “Parents/carers should be informed about the specific nature and content” of the education. 91.72% agreed with this and, based on a sample of 7,945 comments received in respect of each consultation statement against set criteria, 74.2% of those who commented said that “parents’ rights should take precedence”.
According to the consultation report, 95.73% of respondents agreed that “pupils and parents/carers should have access to an overview of their school’s RSE policy and planned RSE programme” and, based on a sample of 7,945 comments received in respect of each consultation statement against set criteria, 83.32% of those who commented said that “parents’ rights should take precedence”.
Among comments included in the report on the outcome of the consultation, an unnamed school governor said “To require teachers to provide information in access to abortion may well conflict with their spiritual beliefs and place them in a moral dilemma. Will this require teachers to leave education?”
A teacher also commented “Moral and ethical cannot be removed from the discussion of abortion, if these are not to be discussed when teaching about it, then it can only be taught [in] a way that is in support of it, this is not OK”.
Among parents who responded, one said “As a parent I know my child best and am therefore best placed to know what they need to know. Children don’t want to have to justify themselves to their peers and so can pass the decision to their parents”.
Another commented “Parents have the right to decide what’s in the best interests of their children. Children may not be mature enough to decide whether something is in their best interests or not”.
Mirror the approach taken in England
When the UK Government brought forward regulations forcing schools in Northern Ireland to teach students aged 11 to 16 years old (key stages 3 and 4) about abortion in June last year, it was heavily criticised by the highly respected House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Unusually, there was no public consultation on the regulations prior to them coming into effect, in contrast to other comparable policy changes, including changes to RSE in England.
However, the Northern Ireland Department of Education launched this consultation with limited scope after the regulations had already been approved, relating to the circumstances under which parents should be able to withdraw their children from this content in schools.
The preambles to the consultation questions fail to mention that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, said that the regulations will “mirror the approach taken in England”.
In England, teaching about abortion in schools goes far beyond outlining what the abortion law is, and recommended resources teach girls how to get an abortion (including late-term abortions) and how to go about secretly having an abortion without their parents knowing.
England’s RSE guidance states that there are “many excellent resources available, free of charge, which schools can draw on”, specifically listing the Sexwise website as a resource for “up to date information on all aspects of sexual and reproductive health…which teachers may find helpful for their knowledge”.
The Sexwise resource outlines how to get an abortion (including late-term abortions) and teaches girls how to go about secretly having an abortion without their parents knowing.
In the same resource, students who are pregnant are encouraged to book an appointment at an abortion clinic, even if they are unsure about whether they want to have an abortion. The resource states that “Abortion is safer the earlier it takes place, so even if you’re not certain about your decision, it’s a good idea to get a referral. You’ll always be given time to make up your mind, if you need it”.
Contact details for the three largest abortion providers in the UK, all of whom receive the majority of their income from performing abortions, are provided in the resource.
Its resources are highly biased and include extensive misinformation, for example stating that “before the limit of viability (24 weeks in the UK), the foetus is not considered a human being”.
Stating that an unborn child under 24 weeks is not considered a human being is simply an opinion, widely disputed, and should be labelled as such. In the “Why do some people oppose abortion?” section of the resource, the EFC states “… if a fertilised cell is a human being, then using a condom or masturbating is tantamount to murder… as trillions of potential lives die in teenage boys’ bellybuttons every day”.
This misinformation falsely claims that those opposed to abortion believe that gametes, unfertilised sperm and eggs, require the same protection in law that an embryo or fetus should have.
Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “The overwhelming rejection of the teaching about access to abortion in Northern Ireland is consistent with what we already know: the people of Northern Ireland do not want abortion”.
“The people of Northern Ireland made it clear that they did not want abortion introduced to Northern Ireland, but the UK Government ignored them and forced it on them”.
“Now the UK Government is adding insult to injury and forcing schools throughout Northern Ireland to teach about abortion”.
“This clear ideological teaching is in stark contrast to the historic culture in Northern Ireland where the rights of unborn children were recognised. 100,000 people are alive today in Northern Ireland because of their historic strong pro-life laws, laws that sadly no longer exist”.
“However, it is important that parents can at least withdraw their children from years 8-11 from content that includes teaching about abortion”.