The promotion of abortion in Northern Ireland’s schools

On 1 July 2023, a draconian piece of legislation — more reminiscent of something from the dark days of the Soviet Union than a law adopted by a democratic state — will be imposed on the people of Northern Ireland. As a result of this legislation, framed by the Conservative Government in London, it will be illegal for teachers in Catholic schools to tell their pupils why the Catholic faith condemns abortion. Instead, all schools, regardless of their ethos or religious status, must teach children between the ages of 11 and 16 that they have a right to abortion and tell girls how to get one without their parents finding out.

The explanatory note accompanying the Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 tells schools that they must not:

“…advocate or promote any particular opinion, on sexual and reproductive health and rights in accordance with the recommendations in the Report of the Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“the CEDAW report”).”

This report, issued in 2018, by an unaccountable convention compliance committee based in Geneva, Switzerland, noted that “access to abortion services and contraceptives are not statutory requirements of the advisory curriculum”. It went on to claim that “young people in Northern Ireland were denied the education necessary to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights,” stating that, “where relationship and sexuality education is delivered, it is frequently provided by third parties and based on anti-abortion and abstinence ethos.”1 The authors of the CEDAW report attributed this to the influence of both Catholic and Protestant church representatives in the management of the Province’s schools. It is this alleged “anti-abortion and abstinence ethos” that these Regulations aim to eradicate. 

Forcing schools to promote and facilitate abortion is not a neutral or value-free position. It is by definition the promotion of a “particular opinion”. The 2023 Regulations, therefore, are aimed exclusively at suppressing the expression of religious views opposed to abortion. This threatens the conscientious rights of teachers and school governors protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It also contravenes the terms of section 76 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which prohibits public authorities, such as the Department of Education — tasked with implementing the Regulations — from discrimination based on religious belief or political opinion. 

Section 75 of the 1998 Act, on the other hand, recognises the particular religious character of the role played by boards of governors in Northern Ireland when it lists them among the institutions exempt from the statutory duty “to have due regard to the need to promote equality…” between religious beliefs or political opinions. 

The 2023 Regulations is merely the latest in a series of statutory instruments aimed at advancing London’s abortion agenda for Northern Ireland which began with decriminalisation in October 2019. Since then, objections to the increasingly autocratic attitude of the Government have been met with the feeble excuse from the secretary of state that he has no choice. Parliament, he insists, placed him under a legal duty to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW report. A legitimate criticism of the United Kingdom’s Constitution is that a Government that commands a majority in the House of Commons has no limitation on its legal powers. It could, in the words of one former lord chancellor, turn Parliament into “a single-party, single-chamber elective dictatorship on the former Eastern European model.”2 The Government is free to change course and change the law anytime it wishes to. The truth is, London is determined to press ahead with the report’s list of demands. 

Consequences of the “fake” rights agenda

Despite the unprecedented status being given to its report, the CEDAW committee — like every other UN compliance body — has no legal authority in either international law or UK domestic law. However, the perception that its pronouncements must be followed may be the result of a long-running campaign by commercial abortion providers and their lobbyists to bring about the re-interpretation of international human rights instruments.

This campaign was exposed in 2003 with the discovery of an internal memo from the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR). This memo was made public when US Congressman Christopher Smith read a leaked copy into the Congressional Record.3 The document stated that the CRR’s “goal is to see governments worldwide guarantee women’s reproductive rights out of recognition that they are bound to do so.” Under the section heading “Gaps in existing norms — A. Abortion” it states:

“We have been leaders in bringing arguments for a woman’s right to choose abortion within the rubric of international human rights. However, there is no binding hard norm [binding treaty provisions] that recognises women’s right to terminate a pregnancy. To argue that such a right exists, we have focused on interpretations of three categories of hard norms: the rights to life and health; the right to be free from discrimination; those rights that protect individual decision-making on private matters.”

In recent years several UN committees have attracted widespread criticism for practically abandoning the rules of interpretation of customary international law laid down in the Vienna Convention on the Interpretation of Treaties. These rules apply to human rights instruments just as much as they apply to other international agreements. According to Kerstin Mechlem, a lecturer in human rights and international law at the Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster: 

“…such neglect has led to unconvincing results that have undermined the value, credibility, and usefulness of the work of the treaty bodies, thereby causing a possible weakening rather than strengthening of the human rights system.”4

She concludes that the “disregard for rules of interpretation raises the question of where a committee draws the line between interpreting a treaty and developing new law for which it does not have a mandate.”5

No right to abortion has ever been recognised in any of the nine core UN treaties, including CEDAW. This has not deterred the CEDAW committee from extrapolating new obligations from those recognised when the text was negotiated. For example:

  • The Committee has interpreted Article 12 which calls on states to provide women with health care and adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation as requiring Croatia and Italy to override the conscientious objections of doctors who do not want to perform abortions
  • The Committee reprimanded Belarus for celebrating Mothers’ Day, declaring that it was in breach of the Convention because it encouraged women’s traditional roles
  • The Committee condemned China for “perpetuating the identification of women with children” by naming the central policy-making bureau “the National Working Committee on Women and Children”. China was also chastised for labour laws that “overemphasise the protection of women”
  • The Committee also directed China to increase the number of vasectomies to achieve numerical equality with tubal ligations.

At the same time, the committee has consistently ignored genuine human rights abuses.6 The credibility of large sections of the UN human rights apparatus has been seriously undermined by its silence on the forced sterilisation and abortion of women in China as well as torture and imprisonment for religious and political beliefs. These are just some of the atrocities routinely perpetrated against Chinese women.

The silencing of all pro-life opinion

The 2023 Regulations were laid before Parliament on 6 June. This was less than two weeks after the Court of Appeal had rejected the application for a judicial review brought by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). This challenged the Secretary of State’s assumption of the power to compel Ministers in Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions to implement his instructions. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation within the devolved administration and the slow rollout of abortion provision, the London Government ordered ministers to ignore their legal obligations under the devolution agreement. SPUC argued that the secretary of state had exceeded his lawful authority by giving himself the power to dictate the implementation of the CEDAW report without any public consultation. The potential implications for the education system were of particular concern. But in a stunning failure to grasp the gravity of the situation, the judges dismissed the point stating:

“We do not consider that there was a legitimate expectation that there would be consultation on future implementing legislation. All that this argument really boils down to is that the availability of contraception which was not part of the original consultation should have been consulted upon in a separate consultation.”7

Granted free rein by the courts, the secretary of state wasted no time. In a statutory instrument made up of just four clauses, he has attacked the right of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their religious beliefs, threatened the freedom of conscience of teachers and school governors, undermined Northern Ireland’s legal provisions against religious discrimination, and paved the way for the indoctrination of school children in a manner normally associated with totalitarian regimes. However, this situation did not arise by chance, nor is this kind of social engineering restricted to Northern Ireland. Pro-life activity (including silent prayer) was banned in Northern Ireland before it was criminalised in England and Wales. And in Scotland, the Government has declared its intention to decriminalise abortion. 

While Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders have condemned the Regulations, it is too early to say whether they will show sufficient resolve to defy the Government. If the legislation is allowed to remain in place, then all post-primary schools in the Province will fall under the sway of the abortion industry. And a generation of children will become a captive audience for anti-life propaganda, within a regime determined to silence anyone who tells the truth about abortion.


  1. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (6 March 2018) p 12.
  2. Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, A Sparrow’s Flight, The Memoirs of Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, (William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1990) p 249.
  3. Documents Reveal Deceptive Practices by Abortion Lobby” Hon Christopher H Smith of New Jersey in The House of Representatives. Congressional Record (Monday, December 8, 2003).
  4. Kerstin Mechlem, “Treaty Bodies and the Interpretation of Human Rights”, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 42:905 [2009] p 905–47.
  5. Ibid, p 946.
  6. See Rita Joseph, “Ideology Distorts Treaty Obligations” Endeavour Forum Newsletter No 132, Endeavour Forum Inc, Victoria, Australia (October 2008). Endeavour Forum is an NGO in special consultative status with UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
  7. In the Matter of an Application by SPUC Pro-Life Limited for Judicial Review and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Neutral Citation KEE12094 (22 May 2023) 73.