Stephen Fernane asks if the new Social Personal and Health Education curriculum and proposals to revise the Gender Recognition Act 2015 is at odds with the core principle of parental consent
Minister for Education Norma Foley’s recent comments on parental consent and gender identity have hinted that there may be a lack of joined up thinking within Government on what is a highly emotive topic in society.
Following last week’s announcement that an updated Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum will be ready in time for the Junior Cycle in September – and updated for the senior cycle in 2024 and at primary level from 2025 – Minister Foley put parental consent front and centre of the new curriculum.
It would, she said, give parents the right to withdraw children from classroom discussions on such sensitive issues as gender identity, pornography and sexual consent.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is preparing the curriculum but many parents have already voiced concern over the curriculum to Minister Foley.
In response, the Minister was clear in giving assurances that parental consent will allow for a child to be removed from the school environment while such classroom discussions are taking place, should that be the parent or guardian’s wish.
However, in an Dáil statement by Minister Foley last month in response to a parliamentary question from Deputy Jennifer Whitmore, the Minister’s response seemed – at least on the surface – at odds with her SPHE position given the pending legislation on gender identity rules for children under 18s.
Minister Foley said the Programme for Government gives a clear commitment to gender recognition for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Under the current Gender Recognition Act 2015, individuals may only apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, to legalise their preferred gender in the eyes of the state, if they are 18 years of age.
Individuals aged 16 and 17 must require parental consent and a court order to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate.
Minister Foley said the Programme for Government will aim to make it ‘less onerous’ for individuals under 18 to legally switch genders.
She also announced that counselling supports would be made available to families in the event of children transitioning genders.
The draft heads of the bill to implement the changes have already been approved by Government and are undergoing pre legislative scrutiny, under the remit of the Minister for Social Protection.
But a fundamental question arising from the proposal remains: if adopted, would state law still require parental consent for a child under 18 to change gender?
While Minister Foley promises that the SPHE curriculum enshrines a parent’s right to withdraw a child from debates on gender identity in a classroom, revised changes to the Gender Recognition Act hint at eroding parental consent altogether in more extreme cases of gender dysphoria among minors.
Following Minister Foley’s Dáil comments, Professor Dónal O’Shea – senior consultant endocrinologist with the National Gender Service (NGS) –heavily criticised the proposals and warned against children changing gender in isolation from family support.
He told a national radio show that teenagers considering transitioning had better outcomes when supported within a family environment.
Prof O’Shea said that to allow a child to obtain a Gender Recognition Cert - without the support of parents – could create grounds for conflict.
I contacted Minister Foley’s office for a response to what many fear is a loss, by stealth, of parental consent regarding children who wish to change gender.
Again, Minister Foley reiterated the Programme for Government’s commitment to making the process of self-declaration for under 18s ‘less onerous’.
She also stated her primary objective is for school communities to be places of openness and inclusion; places where a welcoming, safe environment for all students – irrespective of background, gender or ethnicity – is the norm.
While Minister Foley’s statement said she strongly believes in the importance of parental consent – including in the context of the Gender Identity Bill – she does not indicate whether or not the new legislation will protect, in law, parental consent in the case of under 18s changing gender.
Perhaps it will. But what parents really want is clarity and a clearer understanding of what is meant by making it ‘less onerous’ for a child to change gender.