New Sex-Ed Legislation in Northern Ireland Threatens Freedom of Religion
On the 28th of June, 2023, the UK government voted to introduce a new mandatory curriculum on sex and abortion in Northern Ireland, which includes education on the prevention of early pregnancy and how to access an abortion. This legislation has met with worry about the freedom of conscience and religion in Northern Ireland. Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said: "This legislation will likely put teachers and parents who oppose abortion in a very difficult situation.”
On the 28th of June 2023, the members of parliament in Westminster voted to allow this new law to pass, with those in favour by 373 to 28, though almost all of the Northern Irish members opposed it. The legislation passed despite the fact that a number of submissions made to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised concerns that teachers who are morally opposed to abortion would not have the option of opting out of teaching abortion to pupils. The Committee was also critical of the fact that there were no guarantees that parents would be able to withdraw their children from lessons that taught about abortion: “The Committee believes that this will be of considerable concern to parents in Northern Ireland.”
The regulation was introduced by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris. He argued in a written statement to parliament that he had a legal duty to act on recommendations made in a United Nations report produced by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. This report, known as the CEDAW Report, proposed that sex education in Northern Ireland should be compulsory and comprehensive. A leading human rights lawyer has claimed that the government has "no binding obligation" to impose the recommendation from the CEDAW Report,
Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said “While this result is a disappointment, it was not unexpected. The last time that a vote in support of a statutory instrument was lost in the House of Commons was in October 1979. This legislation will likely put teachers and parents who oppose abortion in a very difficult situation.”
Rebecca Stevenson, Policy Officer at CARE NI, a Christian social policy charity, calls on the government to ensure that parents have the right to withdraw their children from the lessons. She is concerned that the regulations will leave Christian teachers and schools at risk of criminalisation:"We urge the government to ensure that there is a clear, unilateral right of withdrawal from new curriculum teaching. Christian parents, and others in NI, who have a conscientious objection to aspects of the curriculum must be free to withdraw their children from lessons."
A Conservative MP, Robin Millair, quit his job in order to vote with his conscience against the new regulations. Robin Millar is a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Welsh Secretary David Davies and one of the 20 Conservative MPs who voted against the regulations. He said: “I could not in good conscience represent parents and at the same time ignore the conclusion of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that more time was needed to consult with parents in NI before enacting this Statutory Instrument.” Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim, spoke out against the vote saying: “It’s brought in with speed, it’s brought in without consultation, it doesn’t respect the deep faith that people – parents, teachers, and the boards of governors of schools – have, and it doesn’t even provide for a parental opt-out.”
Until now, each school in Northern Ireland made its own decisions on how to teach sex education as part of their curriculum, which every school is legally obliged to deliver.