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Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland have hit out at plans to introduce mandatory lessons about access to abortion in secondary schools, describing the Westminster proposals as a form of “ideological colonisation”.
In a sharp statement, senior Church leaders rejected the Westminster regulations, slamming the proposals as “overreach” while emphasising the rights of parents.
The regulations, which were confirmed this month by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton Harris MP, are set to come into force later this year, making it compulsory for all second level schools in NI to teach children as young as eleven about access to abortion and prevention of early pregnancy.
Up until now, schools have had the power to teach issues relating to pregnancy and abortion in line with their individual ethos.
In a statement released on Wednesday following the Summer General Meeting of the Bishops’ Conference in Maynooth, Catholic leaders said they had “grave concerns” about the plans, adding that there is “no such thing as a neutral view on abortion”. They also drew attention to the fact that such legislation is not imposed in second level schools in Britain.
The statement was published in the names of Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of Dromore and Primate of All Ireland; Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry and Apostolic Administrator of Down and Connor; Bishop Larry Duffy, Bishop of Clogher; and Bishop Michael Router, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Armagh.
“Having already imposed some of the most radical abortion laws in the world on the people of Northern Ireland, without their consent, the Secretary of State now seems determined to impose an ideologically biased view of abortion on all schools, irrespective of parental rights or school ethos,” the Catholic leaders said.
They described the legislation as “radical,” adding that such legislation is not imposed on schools in Britain, “where the right of parents to be involved in decisions about such ethical and pastoral issues is fully respected”.
“There is no such thing as a neutral view on abortion,” they continued. “There is no such thing as a value-free or ethically neutral approach to the question of when life begins and when we have a duty to protect and care for all human life.
“These are matters subject to sincerely held differences of opinion across the world. It is not for a Government to impose one ideological approach on children, parents or on our schools, over others.”
They further said that the right of parents to an education for their children that is an accordance with their ethical, religious and philosophical convictions, remains “an internationally recognised human right.”
This right, they stressed, prevents Governments from “the kind of over-reach in relation to the rights and freedom of parents that this legislation represents.”
The bishops called on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to “respect the internationally recognised rights of parents, and the principles of consultation and devolution in the Good Friday Agreement, and to withdraw this legislation, leaving it to a devolved Assembly to decide, in consultation with parents and educational stakeholders.”
They went on to accuse Secretary of State Heaton Harris of “indulging in a tired and frankly, offensive caricature of what are outstanding teachers are actually doing in our schools in this area” – referencing the “recent so-called investigation” by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) into Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools, which called for radical overhauls.
Bishops said that the Catholic Schools Trustees Service would be writing to those who carried out the recent NIHRC “investigation” to express Trustee’s “serious concerns” about the accuracy and fairness of that report, which made headlines and news bulletins in recent days in the North.
“Neither party took the trouble to engage with teachers in the classroom,” they said.
“At best, a limited paper-based exercise was undertaken which failed to recognise that in the reality of classroom teaching, teachers and schools are endeavouring to provide professional, ethically balanced, scientifically honest, and pastorally responsible age-appropriate Relationships and Sexuality formation in our schools”
They said the education currently offered in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland is “rooted in the building up of relationships of trust and openness in which every issue can be maturely, openly and honestly discussed”.
The statement continued: “That is the approach of Catholic, and indeed of other schools where highly sensitive matters like abortion are discussed fully and openly and which enables our young people to be confident and compassionate with regard to all of the issues concerned.
“The Secretary of State, and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, need to move away from their tendency to ideological colonisation in this area, and trust parents, teachers, young people and local politicians in Northern Ireland to balance the rights and responsibilities involved.”
Bishops concluded by calling on politicians in Northern Ireland, along with MPs in Westminster, to oppose the regulations – extending this invitation to parents and teachers across the North. They also encouraged young people to “challenge” the implication that they are “passive and uninformed”
“We call on all politicians in Northern Ireland, and those MPs in Westminster with a genuine commitment to the principles of pluralism, democracy and the right to devolved decisions in the Good Friday Agreement, to oppose the regulations in Westminster.
“We also encourage parents and teachers in schools in Northern Ireland to challenge the unjust presentation by the Secretary of State, and the NI Human Rights Commission, of the outstanding, ethically responsible and scientifically balanced work they are doing in our schools in regard to Relationships and Sexuality Education.
“Finally, we call on young people themselves to challenge the view that they are passive, uninformed and unable to engage confidently and maturely in open debate about all the issues raised in this important part of the school curriculum,” they said
Editor of The Irish Catholic and columnist with The Irish Independent and The Belfast Telegraph, Michael Kelly, challenged “aggressive secular commentary” around mandatory teaching of abortion in NI schools, pointing out that Catholics pay tax and that Catholic schools are often ahead of state-controlled schools in league tables:
The plans have also come under fire from unionists; with opponents including the DUP, who last week accused Secretary of State Chris Heston-Harris of “driving a coach and horses” through the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland to promote abortion in schools.
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, meanwhile blasted the new curriculum as “scandalous” while encouraging parents to remove their children from relationship and sexuality education (RSE) lessons over the plans.
The incoming regulations will amend previous local education laws in relation to Key State 3 and 4 pupils. They will also obligate the Department of Education to provide guidance on the content and delivery of the curriculum, to be provided by 1st January 2024.
This piece was first published on Gript.
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