Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


10:12 am

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)

The Bill seeks to put in place standardised and evidence-based relationship and sexual education. It is designed to give all students access to the same information to help them understand health and develop respectful social and sexual relationships. This is not controversial. The vast majority of the public agree with the need for all young people to be provided with age-appropriate, scientifically accurate relationship and sex education. Again, we have a situation whereby the Oireachtas is catching up with social norms. The general population is already ahead of us on this.

In this context, I cannot believe the Government will push the Bill back by nine months, apparently, to allow the Department time to consider it. It is a very easily understood Bill. Yes, time will be needed to implement it, so it will be long overdue even without this Government interference. Why is the Minister delaying the Bill? What is objectionable about young people accessing standardised and evidence-based sex education? What does she need time to consider?

It is unbelievable to think we do not treat relationship and sex education the same as other subjects. At present, there is much greater oversight and standardisation of other subjects, such as applied maths and Irish, than there is of sex education. The very least we can expect is for the Department of Education to treat this incredibly important subject with the same consistency and professionalism given to other subjects.

Irish universities and colleges have to deal with the impacts of this lack of education. In response to shockingly high rates of sexual assault, they are running consent and information classes to address the glaring gaps in knowledge and understanding around what a healthy relationship is. We need the State to wake up and realise that it is 2021. Young people deserve access to education that is unbiased and in accordance with best practice in health and science. Not only is it their right, it will be better for them and better for society.

While the Bill’s focus is on the Department of Education taking responsibility for teaching and learning on relationship and sex education, it also deals with the religious influence which limits the information to which young people have access. Of course, education about religion and spirituality can enrich understanding of different cultures but it cannot be allowed to prevent fact-based education. Schools that receive public funding must follow the standards set by the State, not a particular theology. While the Bill has a specific purpose, it also relates to a larger need for a conversation around the separation of church and State. Until we properly address this, there will be issue after issue and controversy after controversy. Today’s topic is education but the significant matter of the national maternity hospital remains unresolved. It is the largest investment in maternal health care for this State and ownership will remain with a company set up by the Sisters of Charity, allowing for a religious ethos rather than medical need to determine what services are provided in our national maternity hospital.

The State should be strictly neutral in matters of religion, favouring none and discriminating against none. In publicly funded schools, hospitals, and other institutions one particular faith system cannot be given preference over others. This is not an atheist versus religion debate, it is about a modern democratic system that says religious practices are matters for individuals and families, not State bodies. Only a truly secular state can guarantee freedom of religion for those who wish to practice it and guarantee freedom from religion for those who do not. Public services need to be just that - accessible to all. This accessibility is not only about using these services but also gaining employment in them. Under the Employment Equality Act 1998, hospitals and schools are permitted to discriminate on the grounds of religion in employment. In healthcare, personal choices are impacted by the hospital people are in. The interests and desires of patients, especially in matters of reproductive health and end-of-life care, can be in conflict with or not respected by, the religious ethos of a hospital. This simply cannot be allowed.

There is a clear need for a citizen’s assembly in this area. It is complex and will have implications for the administration of education, healthcare and social services. The vast majority of people, whether of a religious persuasion or none, recognise this. People are sick and tired of Governments that have to be dragged along by change. We need a Government that will finally lead the way in the kind of progressive change we all need to see.


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