yes or no?
In the aftermath of this week's defeat of a Lords' amendment to allow parents to withdraw their children from 11W/AIDS education, James Le Fanu argues that the time has come for Catholics to re-think the issue WHEN Cardinal Basil Hume wrote last June to Education Secretary John Patten saying he "would greatly" regret if the teaching of HIV and AIDS were excluded from Catholic schools, it was still widely believed that AIDS posed a significant threat to everyone irrespective of age or sexual orientation.
"AIDS does not discriminate" was the popular slogan and in this context the Cardinal was perhaps right to warn against the "misplaced anxiety" of parents who thought that sex education was "inappropriate or damaging to children".
Now everything has changed.
Virginia Bottomley, acting on a confidential memorandum from the Public Health Laboratory Service that the risk of being infected by the HIV virus was vanishingly small for everyone other than for those who were in recognised "at risk" groups notably homosexuals and intravenous drug users announced ten days ago that there will be major cuts in funding to health education projects.
This decision was certainly made easier by the growing realisation that the dangers of the putative Heterosexual Aids Epidemic has, perhaps deliberately, been overplayed.
It would also seem to require an urgent re-examination by Catholics of their attitudes to the problems of AIDS and in particular the manner in which the disease is being taught about in schools.
Are the risks being exaggerated in the name of "after sex"? Is sex education, as the Cardinal said in his letter to John Patten, being taught in a way that is "appropriate to the intellectual, emotional and moral development of children" or is instruction to 11 and 12-year-olds about oral sex and the use of
condoms a disguised form of sexual abuse.
These vital questions are all clarified by examining the background to the crucial debate held in the Manse of Lords this week sponsored by Labour peer Jack Stallard.
This debate centred around a clause in fact only five words slipped into the 40 page 1991 Education Bill which would have made the teaching of the "facts" about the HIV virus compulsory.
The manner in which teachers were to do this is laid down in a government approved booklet HIV and AIDS: A guide for the Education Service.
Though presented as being a science subject, there is no way the HIV virus can be discussed without reference to wide social issues so in essence this five word clause subverted the two main principles on which sex education is taught in this country.
The first was that it should be presented in a manner "as to encourage those pupils to have due regard to moral consideration".
The second is that parents should have the right to withdraw their children from sex education which they do not approve of.
As Lord Stallard observed last year "the government has given in to pressure to make AIDS education compulsory and hope this will be accepted without anyone knowing what was going on."
So how are the "facts" about HIV to be taught to our 11-14 year olds? For this, we must turn to the booklet, from which any moral framework is completely absent there is, for example, no reference to the possibility that abstention from pre-marital sex or fidelity within marriage might be the best way to escape being infected by the virus.
But, perhaps surprisingly, that is not the worst aspect of it. Much more serious still is that despite being an educational
document, the booklet is run through with the distortions and lack of balance which have contributed so much to exaggerated fears about the disease.
"The commonest route of infection in Britain," children are to be taught, "is by sexual intercourse from an infected person." True.
But one would have thought it necessary to distinguish here between the relative risks of receptive homosexual anal intercourse (where the risk rate is very high) with that of heterosexual vaginal intercourse in which it is virtually insignificant.
The reason for this lack of distinction soon becomes clear when we learn that it is "important to avoid any impression that AIDS is a disease confined to 'high risk' groups."
Then our 11-14 year olds are to be advised "it is preferable to avoid casual sexual intercourse but if this is not possible then 'safe sexual' practices should be adopted". These apparently exclude oral sex because it carries some risk, particularly if semen is taken into the mouth."
In the brief pages of this booklet we come to face to face with the fundamental problem that has dogged the AIDS issue over the last six years.
It is intellectually and morally dishonest , to exaggerate out of all commonsensical proportions the putative threat posed by the HIV virus to teenagers and then under the guise of "sex education" seek to protect them from the threat in a way that destroys their innocence and degrades sexuality.
It is vital the Catholic Church takes the initiative and an appropriate starting point should be for the Cardinal to write again to John Patten opposing a clause that would make the teaching of the contents of this booklet compulsory, while calling at the same time for a thorough and critical view of the whole area of sex education in our schools.
Next week, David Browne, Catholic journalist and broadcaster, replies.