The contradictions of ‘values-free’ sex and relationships education 

By David Mullins

This week the Social Democrats brought forward a Private Members Bill entitled the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021. It has religious-ethos based RSE directly in its sights. Parents would no longer be allowed to withdraw their children from RSE class.

The stated aim of the Bill, at least according to those proposing it, is “to modernise the teaching of relationship and sex education for students in accordance with best practice in health and science and to standardise relationship and sex education across all schools which receive state funding.”

This would involve the introduction of a mandatory and prescribed curriculum completely decoupled from ‘religious influence’ of any kind. At face value, under this reductive model, teaching about sex and relationships would have more in common with how maths and Irish are currently taught than with anything else.

According to the main sponsor of the Bill, Social Democrat TD, Gary Gannon, the Bill would also have the effect of ensuring that domestic legislation would no longer permit children to be withdrawn “from age-appropriate sex education that meets the standards of objectivity and impartiality.”

This of course would involve a severe and de facto unconstitutional infringement of parental rights and the effective obliteration of the rights of denominational schools to teach a version of RSE based on their characteristic spirit or ethos.

Unfortunately for the Social Democrats, the Bill and its legislative intent is full of unresolvable contradictions.

On the one hand it is claimed that the purpose of the Bill is merely to align relationship and sex education according to some notional and neutral version of ‘best practice in health and science.’

But how then are we to interpret the explicit acknowledgement by the Bills proposer that, actually, the objectivity and impartiality he is talking about will be set by the overwhelmingly variable and ambiguous standards of international ‘human rights law’?

There is no such thing as value-free sex and relationship education for the simple reason that once the teaching of such subjects moves outside the arena of the strictly biological, then you are immediately in the realm of values, philosophy and anthropology.

This point was acknowledged by the Co-leader of the Party who brought forward the Bill, when she clearly stated that while the Bill seeks to standardise sex education in primary and secondary schools, “such sex education should, of course, be age appropriate and underpinned by values that reflect the modern and inclusive society Ireland has become.”

And this is the nub of the matter when all is said and done. No values are scientifically objective and impartial.

The open intent of the majority of political parties in Dáil Eireann is to drive the religious vision of the human person to the margins in a blaze of political ‘righteousness’ while engaging in a parallel legislative exercise to expand the role of the state and the secular until it fully encompasses our understanding of the most intimate areas of human experience.

This is achieved at least in part by transferring the locus of authority in such matters away from parents as the primary educators and toward, ironically, the semi-religious adherence to international human rights law as interpreted by the secular left.

That education is an inherently values laden process is also acknowledged by the body tasked with drawing up the RSE curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment. Its guidance to schools and parents fully accepts that:  “as with all education, RSE is not value-free. RSE deals not only with factual information, but with values, attitudes and behaviour too. Children and young people’s learning in RSE is grounded in values of respect, responsibility, equality, dignity and care for each other.”

The question of who determines the content of such values must not become the sole preserve of certain human rights laws and declarations that are in open disagreement with, or even hostile to, the fundamental rights associated with the role of parents and religious freedom.