Catholic bishop condemns abortion curriculum in Northern Ireland’s schools

NI abortion protest Pro-life protesters outsider the Belfast High Court as Northern Ireland abortion laws were being challenged in Belfast, U.K., Oct. 3, 2019. | meandering images/Shutterstock

A Catholic bishop in Northern Ireland condemned new regulations in the country that will require schools to discuss abortion access in the classroom.

Bishop Donal McKeown of the Diocese of Derry, which covers parts of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, told CNA, “I am hugely concerned at this illiberal attack on the right of Catholic schools to offer their own ethos and worldview as they try to help children prepare for mature relationships in a fragmenting world.”

In an interview with BBC Radio McKeown said that promoting abortion in schools amounts to the government’s endorsement of a particular ideology that many might find objectionable. 

“I don’t think you need to impose a duty on schools, that come from a range of different backgrounds, an obligation to provide information as if abortion and that whole area is somehow or other a value-free thing,” McKeown said during the interview.

“This is a new ideology that says: ‘This is the right way to do it, that we must worship on the altar of human rights and everything else must be sacrificed in the service of that.’”

The new regulations were handed down by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. They require that information about abortion access and the legal right to abortion in the country be part of the “relationship and sexuality education” curriculum in post-primary education, which deals with children aged 11 and older.

In a statement, Heaton-Harris said the new regulations mirror the approach taken in England “about the prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.” 

The regulations require that post-primary schools “make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion in Northern Ireland, and monitor its implementation.”

McKeown said the new rules “impose a particular worldview on the education of children in Northern Ireland” and could cause schools to be penalized if they refuse to adhere to the new abortion education requirements. 

“I am really concerned this seems to be a decision by the secretary of state that will impose a particular way of approaching the issue on all schools,” McKeown said.

Bishop McKeown told CNA that he is primarily concerned with three things.

First, he said Heaton-Harris imposed the rules on all Northern Irish schools “without any consultation with stakeholders and educationalists” despite “45% of children attend[ing] Catholic schools, which remain very popular because of their academic standards and strong community ethos.”

Secondly, he said “this is an ideological imposition in schools which are trying to support the development of children’s maturity, very often in situations where they experience domestic instability, pornography and huge social media pressures.” And thirdly, he said the inclusion of this instruction “is based on the dogmatic secular belief that abortion and contraception are purely ‘health-related’ without any moral context.”

The Department of Education must issue guidance by Jan. 1, 2024, on the content and the delivery of the new regulations, and every Board of Governors and principal of a grant-aided school must adhere to the guidance. It also requires the Department of Education to provide a report on the implementation by Sept. 1, 2026, regarding its implementation.

Heaton-Harris noted in his statement that parents will still have the right to opt their children out of these classes, which he said follows the approach of England and Scotland. 

“I recognize the sensitivity of this topic and that some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education themselves, or make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious or other beliefs,” his statement read. “In recognition of this, the regulations also place a duty on the Department of Education to introduce a mechanism to ensure that a pupil may be withdrawn from education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, or elements of that education, at the request of a parent.”

Heaton-Harris also said that instruction about abortion should be provided to children “in a factual way that does not advocate, or oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception.”

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Northern Ireland expanded access to abortion in 2019. Abortion is legal up to 12 weeks’ gestation without the need to provide a reason. It is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy with some conditions but allows women to cite a potential risk to their mental health as a justification in those later stages of pregnancy.

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