Sex, law and HIV infection

Children, Sex Education And The Law, Edited by Neville Harris, National Children's Bureau Enterprises Pounds 12.50. Young Gay Men and HIV Infection, By Jo Frankham, Aids Education and Research Trust Pounds 12

Britain has a high rate of teenage pregnancies compared with other similar countries. So reducing this figure has become a target within the government's Health of the Nation programme.

We also know that sexual behaviour by young people is more likely to be responsible if they have had sex education, so schools are now expected to play a central role in giving this education. Most parents support this, but not all, and herein lies the problem explored in Neville Harris's book.

The law is not clear. Some legislation, including the 1989 Children Act and decisions in the European Court, concentrates on the needs and rights of the children, which include the right to education. It is not clear whether this includes the right to sex education, although to some extent this is covered by the national curriculum.

But much recent education legislation is intended to promote the rights of parents, and in particular their right to withdraw children from sex education if they wish. This conflict became particularly acute for sixteen-year-olds, who can legally engage in sexual relationships but who can in theory be denied sex education.

One particularly contentious area is the provision of advice to individual pupils, in particular on contraception. Several of Harris's authors consider the celebrate case of Victoria Gillick, who wished to ensure that doctors could in no circumstances give her daughters contraceptive advice without informing her.

In a landmark judgment, the House of Lords ruled against Mrs Gillick, emphasising parental responsibilities rather than rights, the increasing autonomy of the older child, and the legitimate role of doctors in seeking to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease.

The Department of Education and Employment holds that teachers are not in the same position as health professionals and so are not covered by the judgment, a view hotly disputed in several of the articles in this book.

However, it does seem clear that a teacher can legally direct a pupil to sources of contraceptive advice and is not required to inform parents. This valuable little book should be in the hands of all teachers and governors.

Young homosexual men are a priority target for HIVAIDS education and Jo Frankham's book will be useful in this respect. It rightly puts the issue of disease into the context of sexuality generally, and the young men she studied desperately wanted education as much about sexuality and relationships as about disease.

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