MPs in the Commons have voted overwhelmingly to support regulations which will force schools in Northern Ireland to teach children between the ages of 11 and 16 about abortion.
The legislation will bring schools in Northern Ireland in line with what is already being taught at schools in England as part of the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum.
The Department for Education will now start work on guidance to support the rollout of the regulations after MPS voted by 373 votes to 28 in favour.
However, religious groups in Northern Ireland are urgently asking for more details. Dawn McEvoy from the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland told Premier :
“Although it's being framed as bringing things into line with England, we still don't have the detail. We won't know the content of the new curriculum until early next year. And our concern is that parents and key stakeholders just aren't being engaged with in any meaningful way.
“Unfortunately, what Westminster is doing is imposing a loaded agenda onto people here without meaningful consultation. So abortion, pregnancy, identity, relationships, sex, those are all really important matters. Parents care about those things for their children, parents need to take responsibility for talking to their children about these things. There just needs to be more sensitivity and respect.
“There are many things that are devolved to Northern Ireland and these are core to our identity and purpose in life. It's not for Westminster, to overturn, on our devolved issues. It’s really important that our children understand about relationships and sex, but for example, in the context of abortion, will this information be factual? We're told it will be, but will it have an agenda to direct children without parental consent, without parental knowledge towards the abortion? So the parents don't know what their children are being told? That's not respectful for the parents and it certainly isn't what children deserve either.”
Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland have also criticised the government for pushing through the plans. At its Summer general meeting, the Irish Bishops’ Conference rejected the legislation. They’ve now called on the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris “to recognise the rights of parents to be involved in decisions affecting their children”.
There are also concerns over whether parents would be able to withdraw their children from the lessons or whether teachers who are opposed to the regulations can opt out. Full details won’t be published until the beginning of 2024.
Dawn McEvoy said :
“That’s part of the concern. We need more meaningful engagement and parents can’t abdicate responsibility for this because sadly, we've seen that we can't always trust the government to respect culture and faith and value systems.”
The rate of contraception use among young people in Northern Ireland is lower while sexually transmitted infections and unplanned teenage pregnancies are higher compared with other parts of the UK.
Dawn McEvoy told Premier she believes children should be educated about these issues but fears the lessons could be one-sided :
“Children do need to have those conversations in school and with their parents, to keep them safe to protect them from sexually transmitted diseases. But I think when the assumption is that it's all about preventing pregnancy, and accessing abortion, we're missing the bigger picture. We're missing the context of conversations about identity and purpose, about healthy sexual relationships. All of that hinges on a moral system and a system of values.”