A lesson in abortion

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

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.”

Life Pregnancy Care is one of the participants in the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme’s Positive Options scheme. Participants are obliged to provide nondirective, medically accurate counselling that discusses all possible options, including keeping the baby, adoption or foster care, and travelling abroad for an abortion. They are prohibited from presenting medically false information.

Life Pregnancy Care was presented with the full text of Sarah’s statement. It did not comment on the specifics of the talk, but nor did it challenge any aspect of Sarah’s claims. Mary McCarthy says it is a “nondenominational, nonadvocacy charitable organisation that provides care and counsel to people experiencing a crisis pregnancy and to those experiencing postabortion distress.”

The situation can be complicated for some schools, especially those with a Catholic ethos, which have four potentially conflicting obligations. By law, schools are obliged to adhere to their ethos, and some schools interpret a Catholic ethos as upholding Catholic teaching on sexual morality; indeed, the Vatican has issued clear guidelines on sex education. However, schools are also obliged to have an RSE programme and cover certain parts of the curriculum. To complicate the matter further, the department has told schools that they are required under the terms of the European Health Charter to provide students with objective information about sexual health, and has also strongly urged schools to use external agencies with caution, particularly if scare tactics are used.

Then there is the fact that many students, especially in rural areas, have little choice but to attend a Catholic school, and pupils and parents may have pro-choice views. One teacher at a Dublin school says that some colleagues also feel conflicted about RSE classes, as the school’s Catholic teaching on abortion, homosexuality and contraception diverges from their own views.

In 2010 the Department of Education issued a circular recommending that schools be cautious when bringing in external agencies. Its guidelines tell schools to “protect students in their care at all times from any potentially harmful, inappropriate or misguided resources, interventions, or programmes”. The department also warns against scare tactics: “Information that induces fear, and exaggerates negative consequences, is inappropriate and counterproductive.”

Balanced article?
Youth Defence is another organisation that gives pregnancy talks, in its case in secondary schools in Donegal, Dublin and Mayo. It declined to provide The Irish Times with specific information about its school talks. "Our sponsored programme visits schools on the invitation of a teacher and presents the development of the unborn child. We've got very positive feedback from both teachers and students."

In an article in the February 2012 edition of the Youth Defence magazine, Solas, entitled "I can't believe I thought abortion was OK", Tadhg MacEoin wrote about "the great success" of its schools programme. He said he remembers the "widely dispensed yet wholly misguided advice given to my peers and I throughout" their SPHE classes. "I have little doubt, when telling us all about the lifestyle-saving wonders of contraception and the supposed demise of happiness brought about by teenage pregnancies, that these teachers genuinely thought they had our best intentions at heart."

MacEoin now leads a schools programme that “tackles the tragic problem of young girls seeking abortions”. It includes “cutting edge footage of a person’s development from conception to birth . . . Few people could rationally accept the killing of an unborn child, be it zygote, embryo or foetus, when faced with the indisputable case for its humanity.”

Around late 2011 Youth Defence gave a talk to a large group of students at a school in Tallaght, in southwest Dublin, at the invitation of a teacher. The students were shown a video clip of Dr Tony Levatino, an American obstetrician and “former abortionist”, speaking at an anti-abortion youth festival at NUI Maynooth in 2009.

Levatino explained how an abortion is carried out on a woman who is 20 weeks pregnant, using surgical instruments as props, and he described the removal, piece by piece, of the limbs, organs and brain of the fetus.

According to Youth Defence, every secondary school in the country has received a colour poster that brings students through the stages of fetal development. Each school has also been sent booklets containing a smaller version of the poster, a quiz and a card that links to the Youth Defence school website.

One school contacted by The Irish Times on a Friday afternoon initially confirmed, twice, that Youth Defence had given talks at the school. The following Monday, after consulting staff, the principal emphatically denied ever having said this and added that Youth Defence had never visited the school.

Speaking in 2011 on Life on the Rock, a programme on the Eternal Word Television Network, in the US, Katie Robinson of Youth Defence said: "We have a very successful schools project called Just the Facts. We try to get into as many schools as possible, and we find it very effective."

Another organisation, Family & Life, says it has distributed fetal models to 1,400 schools in Ireland, adding that “the response has been 100 per cent positive”.

Family & Life says on its website that it has a team of speakers who visit secondary schools with a multimedia presentation that gives "biological facts about the development of the unborn baby". The Irish Times contacted Family & Life; the person who answered the telephone said it does not engage with the media and declined to answer any questions.

In an email sent to the Friends of the Pro-Life Campaign, on September 25th, 2013, Sen Rónán Mullen wrote that a new organisation, LifeWorks, would provide young people with “accurate, balanced, and reliable information on pregnancy, adoption, abortion and related issues. Beginning October 2013, LifeWorks will have a full-time team of speakers visiting second-level schools across Ireland.”

Sen Mullen referred us to Life Works, which declined to answer questions about its schools project but said that “the focus of our presentation is the development of life inside the womb and related topics.”

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the Department of Education says it has no records relating to the work of Youth Defence, Family & Life, Life Pregnancy Care or other anti-abortion organisations in schools. Schools are not obliged to disclose this information, although it is best practice that parents are informed. It is also not clear whether they are more common in girls’, boys’ or mixed schools.

Despite extensive efforts, including three Freedom of Information requests to the department and direct requests to 42 schools, it was not possible to identify the number of schools using external agencies for anti-abortion talks.

But the talks, from both external speakers and teachers, appear to be far more common in Irish schools than pro-choice messages. The Irish Times is aware of four anti-abortion organisations working in schools. The Teachers' Union of Ireland, Choice Ireland, the Irish Family Planning Association, SpunOut.ie and one teacher say they are aware of talks in a number of schools but do not know how common they are overall.

In the UK, the Family Planning Association distributes six leaflets, one of which deals with abortion, to students. The Irish Family Planning Association, which has a pro-choice ethos, does not give information about abortion as part of its school talks about sexual health, but it does give a Positive Options leaflet with details of nondirective crisis-pregnancy agencies, including Life Pregnancy Care.

In the UK, an organisation called Education for Choice works to “ensure young people receive evidence-based, impartial information about abortion”. No pro-choice organisation gives this specific type of school talk in Ireland.

This article was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund