Belfast Telegraph

Why pupils here should be given real facts of life

By Jane Graham

What a shame Ed Balls has been God-bothered into exempting faith schools from his bold new sex education bill commitments.

I was hoping the wave of progress would roll from England into Northern Ireland but it seems certain now that the blinkered, and sometimes downright deceitful, approach to sex in faith schools will continue unabated.

Sex education in Northern Ireland isn’t always woeful, but in far too many cases it is. Some kids are simply taught that homosexual ‘behaviour’, along with pre-marital sex, is, um, frowned upon, and likely to give you sexually transmitted diseases that marriage will somehow shield you from.

Even the basic facts can be skewed. One Co Antrim teacher I know of told his students that ectopic pregnancies can result in healthy full-term babies (the chances of which are calculated by the Royal College of Obstetricians as ‘one in a million’) and thus, despite high risk of severe internal bleeding and/or of death to the mother, shouldn’t be ended prematurely.

There is nothing in Northern Ireland which marks it out as, to put it nicely, the old fashioned bit of the UK, more than the prevalence of medieval attitudes to homosexuality and abortion.

For many outsiders the most incredible aspect of the Iris Robinson affair was the revelation that an elected politician had declared in parliamentary session that “homosexuality and sodomy” were “viler acts” than sexually abusing children, citing “the word of God” as back-up.

Both the language, and the use of religious conviction to support a political argument, were regarded as abnormal, archaic and frankly ridiculous by English, Scottish and Welsh observers who had no idea this kind of commentary was accepted by many Northern Ireland constituents.

When I told friends in London that Belfast’s Gay Pride march had to go through the Parades Commission for approval, they assumed I was joking.

Most people outside Northern Ireland also have no idea that abortion is still illegal in the province. They have no appreciation of the power of strident Catholic groups or the evangelical Christian lobby — that very term raises, for most of the people I’ve spoken to, vague notions of glazed eyes, brainwashed chanting and witches being burned at the stake.

And I must admit I was appalled when, on becoming pregnant in Belfast, I discovered that the abortion law actually limits some pregnant women’s access to information they are legally entitled to.

My own GP didn’t tell me about the blood tests for abnormalities which I was entitled to when I went for my first ante-natal check-up. When, upon being enlightened by my Glasgow-based sister, I asked why he hadn’t mentioned them he said he reasoned there was little point because if the results left me wanting an abortion I couldn’t legally have one in Northern Ireland anyway.

It didn’t occur to him that if I was going to have a baby with Down’s Syndrome I might prefer to be pre-informed about the condition and how to best handle it. He decided what was best for me and used the abortion law, and the culture it encourages, to justify his actions.

The updating of sex education to emphasise equality between gay and straight people, and the basic facts of abortion — the tenets of Ed Balls’ original bill — would have been a huge move towards bringing Northern Ireland into the 21st century.

But it seems more likely that Martin McGuiness will go for a pint with Peter Robinson. What a strange, contradictory country this is.

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