Talking about abortion in schools
Sixth year students are taking an active interest in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment as polling day approaches, writes Kim Bielenberg
The issue of abortion is being debated in schools as thousands of pupils, aged 18 or over, prepare to vote for the first time in the referendum on May 25.
They belong to the age cohort that is most strongly in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment on abortion in the Constitution, according to the most recent polls. But there are strong opinions on both sides in classrooms.
The outcome of the referendum could depend on how many young people actually come out to vote.
Research by the National Youth Council of Ireland shows that 22pc of young people aged 18 to 29 were unregistered last year.
Raising a highly controversial issue like abortion can be a delicate matter for teachers and principals, particularly when a school has a strong Catholic ethos.
How do teachers set aside their own opinions and ensure students are well informed and can debate the issue freely?
Abortion can come up in a number of ways across the curriculum, including Civic Social and Political Education (CSPE), Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE), Religious Education, and the new Leaving Cert subject, Politics and Society - about 900 candidates in 41 schools are sitting the first exam in June.
Clive Byrne, Director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), says "students should feel free to ask questions about it if it comes up in class.
"We should have reached a point where students can discuss issues without it being precluded by a school's ethos."
At Coláiste Dún Iascaigh in Cahir, Co Tipperary, the referendum has excited a lot of interest among pupils in the sixth year Politics and Society class, according to teacher Patrick O'Driscoll.
"Most of the students are of voting age and are registered to vote in the referendum, so they are very interested in the topic."
O'Driscoll says the parameters for discussion are well established.
"The students know each other well, and are used to engaging in debate in a respectful and structured manner.
"They are a very thoughtful class and they will have considered the issue carefully, read about it and discussed it by the time they go in to vote."
Teachers may have strong views on the issue on both sides, but O'Driscoll says he never gives his personal opinion.
"The students will not know how I am going to vote in the referendum," he says.
He does not believe it would be a good idea to invite campaigners on either side to talk to a class, unless it was a well-structured debate with both sides represented.
While he is in favour of open discussion, Clive Byrne of the NAPD says he believes "most principals would discourage overt campaigning with the use of posters or the wearing of badges by teachers in school".
The NAPD has received a number of queries from members about graphic anti-abortion posters that have been placed near schools.
So how is the topic raised in schools with a Catholic ethos, when the patron is strongly opposed to abortion?
This can pose problems, particularly when a teacher has opinions that might differ from Catholic teaching on abortion.
A CSPE teacher in a Catholic school, who did not wish to be named, said: "It does cause difficulties. The referendum comes up in class and I would never discourage students from taking part in a discussion.
"In order to cover myself, I would state clearly the Catholic position on abortion, and then allow a free discussion to take place."
In most Irish schools, religious education now tends to be broad-based, covering a number of different faiths and cultures. As well as general religious education, there is also an exam subject, Religious Education.
Caitriona Smith, a teacher of Religious Education for Leaving Cert at Ratoath College, Co Meath, says abortion is discussed in class as well as issues such as the death penalty, euthanasia and cloning.
"I cover it every year. We tend to explore it in a very factual way first and then look at it as an issue of ethics and morality, without telling students it is right or wrong. Students would be encouraged to discuss it."
Smith says she would not encourage single groups to come in to give talks.
"I believe if you have one single group coming in to talk about it, students would be confused rather than enlightened."
Brendan O'Sullivan, teacher of Politics and Society at Gorey Community School, Co Wexford, says "students coming up to the Leaving Cert are excited because they are exercising their vote for the first time. We would actively encourage students to register to vote."
O'Sullivan says the referendum comes up on the curriculum in a number of areas.
"We would look at decision-making, who has power, the Constitution and what a referendum is. We also look at human rights and the rights of women."
Students tend to set the agenda for discussion in the Gorey Politics class and O'Sullivan says the abortion issue comes up a lot.
"I am very conscious of being impartial so that I do not influence students one way or the other. We try to create a safe environment for discussion.
"Some students have strong opinions and are very vocal, while others are quite apathetic, or they are very private about their opinions."
The Gorey teacher has no doubt that the Leaving Cert Politics course has helped to raise awareness of current affairs among students.
"I held a survey in the class recently and the vast majority of students felt that their understanding had improved over the last two years."
Patrick O'Driscoll of Coláiste Dún Iascaigh believes the Politics course helps students to look beyond the sound bites on both sides.
"This course will encourage active citizenship and engagement with the political process."