A lesson in abortion

What are children learning about the procedure in school, and who is teaching it to them?

Photograph: E+/Getty Images

Photograph: E+/Getty Images

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

A rape victim can’t become pregnant. Abortion damages a woman’s internal organs. Abortion destroys a woman’s mental health. These are among the messages that have been given to secondary-school students in Ireland by teachers and outside agencies such as Life Pregnancy Care and Family & Life.

At secondary level, where, including vocational schools and community colleges, students generally range from 11 to 19, a number of anti-abortion organisations provide talks and presentations. Schools are not obliged to tell parents about the talks, and the Department of Education says it does not routinely record the names of external facilitators during school inspections.

The talks, which are the result of invitations from schools, could be part of the civic, social and political education (CSPE) programme, which is delivered up to third year, relationships and sexuality education (RSE) or social, personal and health education (SPHE). They are not sex-education talks as such; they could be described as pregnancy-advice classes.

Life Pregnancy Care runs a free schools programme that Mary McCarthy, the organisation’s chief executive, says aims to “inform students and teachers about the support services available through Life Pregnancy Care, to engage with students around decision-making processes when facing a crisis pregnancy, to explore the possible consequences of decisions made and to empower students to make informed decisions”.

The Irish Times interviewed 14 students, five other under-25s, and a parent. Eight of the 20 reported encountering anti-abortion messages at school, mostly from teachers but one from an outside agency.

One of the students, whose name we have changed to Sarah, sat through a Life Pregnancy Care talk at her girls’ school in Munster last year. The teacher was not in the room for the talk, contrary to the Department of Education’s best-practice guidelines. According to Sarah, the speaker told the class that a woman who has had an abortion may feel that she is being punished if, in later pregnancies, she suffers a miscarriage. She says the speaker also told them that women can feel suicidal and may harm themselves after abortions.

“The speaker presented one anecdotal story of a woman who had an abortion in her early 20s, got married around the age of 30, got pregnant and then had a breakdown and had her child taken away from her,” says Sarah. “Then she told another story, similar to that, about a woman who got pregnant and aborted again because she didn’t feel she deserved to have a child.”

Graphic account
The class, she claims, was presented with a graphic account of a chemical abortion. “She told us of a particular case where the woman thought that it would be like taking the morning-after pill. She was given a pill and sent to a hotel for the night. The speaker said that the pain was 20 times worse than anything she had ever experienced. Graphic and detailed descriptions of the pain were given.”

Sarah says the class was also told that, in some countries, abortions are conducted right up to term, and that as the baby crowns they “crack its skull”. The speaker said that one such abortion did not succeed, but, as the baby had by then been born, they could not be killed: the child had been damaged by the failed abortion and was now in a wheelchair, with multiple disabilities.

According to Sarah, the speaker then asked students when life begins, and received a variety of responses. She dismissed these and said that life begins at the moment of conception. The speaker said the most important person during pregnancy is “the baby”.

Parents were not told in advance about the talk. A number of them complained to the school. “My mother didn’t approve of this organisation, and told me not to believe everything they had said.” The Irish Times has spoken to Sarah’s mother.

Sarah, who regards herself as pro-choice, says that the talk did not change her feelings but that the speaker did make her feel silenced. “She did not tell us about the thousands of women who had an abortion and who carry on with their lives, or about the women who knew what they wanted and that it was not the right time for them to have a baby.”

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