19.01.1998

The young ones betrayed by sex education

Contraception is now freely available to under-16s but where is the moral guidance to go with it?
 
The young ones betrayed by sex education
 
BY LYNETTE BURROWS
 
AT LONG last — somebody in Government has had a blind­ing glimpse of the obvious. On Saturday, the Minister for Public Health, Tessa Jowell, issued a statement announcing a review of the guidelines given to doctors when prescribing the Pill to adoles­cents. Young girls should not be simply handed contraceptives without proper support and counselling, it said. They should be given moral guidelines, too.
 
For too long, there has been a moral vacuum at the very centre of the whole sex education issue. "Advice" has been advice on process and procedures, guidance through the mechanics of contraception, not on what is right or wrong, or what offers the best hope for the emotional health of those involved.
 
And this absence of ethical direction has created many casualties. If nobody in authority is prepared to stand up and say that something is morally and emotionally harmful, then it is little wonder that many girls have already severely scarred their own lives before they are even old enough to buy a lottery ticket. Some firm line has to be decided upon and then enacted. Some­one has to say: "This is the law, do not ignore it, institute it."
 
But will this counselling that Tessa Jowell talks of make the slightest dif­ference? After all, the reason many girls go to family planning clinics or to doc­tors who will not tell their parents is precisely because they know what the adults close to them will say.
 
Thus far, and strange as it may seem, the professionals responsible for sex education for children have not done a good job in warning children about the dangers to their mental and physical health of premature sex. And they have certainly been uneasy in taking any kind of moral stand — either one way or the other.
 
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Everybody involved in contraceptive provision has a financial interest in young people's sexuality, from the doc­tor who writes the prescription to the clinics where everybody in the building depends on the attendance of large numbers of under-age girls.
 
Is it therefore any surprise to find that the number of children taking up their services has increased year by year?
 
Consider the figures. The number of girls aged 15 and under attending family planning clinics has increased every year since the late Seventies. In fact, it more than doubled from 27,000 in 1993 to 61,000 in 1996.
 
During all this period, school sex education has become ever more graphic, crude and comprehensive. Despite this, we still have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, very high numbers of abortions and an epi­demic of sexually transmitted disease. In any other area of social policy, failure on this scale would indicate that cur­rent practice was not working.
 
Even more startlingly, 7,500 under­age girls get pregnant every year — 20 a day. Ten have abortions; the others have their babies. Some of these girls are not even in their teens.
 
Tessa Jowell has demonstrated that the Government knows that the cur­rent absence of ethical direction isn't helping anyone — but will the medical professionals actually be given a clear indication of what is expected of them? Will the Government say the unsayable — that this is morally wrong?
 
Further, why are these girls not assumed to have been victims of pae­dophilia. After all, someone has had sexual relations with them at an age when the law says it is a crime... so why has the number of prosecutions for it halved in the past 10 years?
Who decided that paedophilia did not exist for 10 and 11-year-old girls? We know what our response would be if schoolboys were being infected, on the same scale, with AIDS or VD. We would immediately demand that those responsible be prosecuted and, if necessary, imprisoned. Consent would not be a reason to abandon the law. Public opinion would be thunderously clear that it must stop — and public opinion would be right.
 
We recognise dangers in under-age smoking and drinking but with sexual activity we take a liberal line, despite the fact that the consequences can be so much worse.
If under-age sex becomes morally acceptable, there is no way of protect­ing girls from being exploited. It would be far better to assume that anyone who breaks the law by having sex with an under-age girl is guilty of an offence unless they can prove to a court that they were deceived about her age.
 
Ten years ago, when contraceptive providers won the right to prescribe for underage girls without their parents' knowledge or consent, those in favour did not know how the policy would turn out. It has turned out badly.
 
They did not imagine that it would result in increased teenage pregnancy — the idea was to reduce it. They did not foresee the dramatic rise in serious venereal infection or abortions among young girls.
 
Never, in their wildest dreams, did they think that the time would come when 10 and 11-year-olds were calmly demanding to be put on the Pill — and that clinics would oblige.
 
We have had dust thrown in our eyes and, for years, have not been able to see the problem as it is. We are allowing a number of boys and men to break the law by having sexual relations with girls whom the law says are off-limits. We have seen it as a victimless crime and have taken no action.
 
Now the victims are becoming impossible to overlook and the Gov­ernment, seizing the initiative, is acting as if it were something even more remarkable — a "perpetrator-less" crime. It isn't and they should take action. They should start to deal with the moral vacuum and enforce the law.
 
• The author's book, The Fight For The Family, is published today by the Family Education Trust.