Breda O’Brien: There is nothing ‘objective’ about sex education

The State wants to force religious schools to go against their ethos on the issue

'The idea that relationship and sexuality education can be delivered in an objective way that is free of values is absurd.' Photograph: iStock

'The idea that relationship and sexuality education can be delivered in an objective way that is free of values is absurd.' Photograph: iStock

 

Consent is a central value in sexual ethics. But when it comes to the religious ethos of schools and the parents who choose to send their children to those schools, consent is irrelevant; in fact, the law should be changed so that consent can be totally ignored.

This is only a slight parody of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills Report on Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) published this week.

Recommendation 10 states: The Committee recommends that sexual consent forms an integral and fundamental part of all discussions on and reforms of SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) and RSE.

Recommendation 14 states: The Committee recommends that the Education Act 1998 be amended or at least reviewed, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled.

Notice the number of loaded words and presumptions in the second recommendation. The implication is that a school with a religious ethos cannot deliver effective, objective and factual RSE and that the law should not protect religious freedom.

The objective facts about sexuality can be delivered in a biology class. Honestly, it does not take that long. But we are talking about relationship and sexuality education. The idea that it can be delivered in an objective way that is free of values is absurd. Here “objective” just stands for “the values that the Oireachtas committee likes”.

The committee states that the “general consensus by witnesses” is that “the content of the RSE curriculum must be revised to reflect international best practice, particularly in terms of contraceptive use, sexually transmitted infections, information around abortion, sexual orientation, gender identity, pornography, consent, psycho-sexual issues and gender equality”. All of this must be done in an age-appropriate way but it must begin in primary school.

Not uncontested

There is scarcely an item there that is uncontested. Take an area where I happen to agree with the committee, that of pornography. The committee recommends that “the negative impact of pornography forms an integral and fundamental part of all discussions on and reforms of SPHE and RSE”.

The word 'consent' appears 532 times in the report, while the word 'love' appears 20 times

There are many people who would contest the idea that pornography in and of itself has any negative impacts. The committee is here making a value judgement on pornography, not some ‘objective’ recommendation. Admitting that they’re making a value judgement – a good one – would be more honest than pretending that they’re just carrying out some kind of neutral “best practice”.

There is a very definite stance taken towards sexual relationships in this report and it all hinges around consent, which is not presented as a bare minimum but as one of the only values that matter. The word “consent” appears 532 times in the report, while the word “love” appears 20 times.

Seven of those appearances are in the Atheist Ireland submission, and each mention of love is a citation from a Catholic Church document that Atheist Ireland is busy condemning.

Yet while the majority of parents probably would not endorse the idea that sex should be reserved for marriage, most would as a minimum like to retain the link between love and sex.

They would also like to see their children delaying sex at least until they are out of their teenage years. Even pragmatically, it results in fewer unwanted pregnancies and lower rates of sexually transmitted infections. More importantly, we owe it to children to teach them that love is about wanting what is best for the other person, not just a romantic feeling or fleeting pleasure.

Ethical sex

The committee refers to the important role of parents but ignores the fact that a significant number of parents will not want their children being taught that consent and contraception are the only necessary conditions for ethical sex. Furthermore, overriding the ethos of a school and obliging it to teach, for example, that abortion is a morally neutral reproductive healthcare choice will also trample on the rights of many parents.

Given the results of recent referendums, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least a third of parents would be unhappy with having their children subjected to propaganda about, for example, the moral neutrality and “objectivity” of abortion.

Nor are these issues confined to Catholics. The Irish Catholic reported recently that the Irish health system, particularly in hospitals, is heavily dependent on Muslim doctors, many of whom are unwilling to take life and are therefore exercising without apology their right to freedom of conscience when it comes to abortion.

Is the State going to impose on Muslim primary schools that they must teach that gender is a spectrum and abortion simply concerns a woman’s right to choose? And if it makes people uncomfortable in the case of Muslims, why shouldn’t it do the same when it comes to Catholic schools?

Catholic schools have legal and moral obligations to uphold the characteristic spirit of their schools, in loco parentis. If the state forces them to renege on these, it will signal an authoritarian, oppressive stance towards not just religious freedom, but the rights of parents.

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