Recent responses to the AIDS crisis in the media generate more questions than answers. Indications are that Canadians have been let down and left confused by the medical and government bureaucracies. We are told that the majority of Canadians believe that AIDS is the most serious health threat today. Surely this national concern deserves a serious response from both a health and education perspective.
In Nova Scotia, the media have informed us that the primary response to AIDS in Nova Scotia must be educational and that a compulsory component on ADIS education will be in the schools this year. AIDS education, we are told, will include information on condom use. Children whose parents object, however, may absent themselves from these sessions.
Ron Giffin, Provincial Minister of Education, along with Dr. Andrew MacKay, AIDS Task Force Chairman, have both been quoted as saying that most objections from parents will be based on religious grounds. What about objections based on public health concerns? Given the uncertainty and confusion in medical and scientific fields about the development of a vaccine for AIDS (as cited, for example in the Globe and Mail, May 24, 1988), we must question many of the so-called “safe sex” methods suggested by existing educational AIDS information packages. It is very disappointing and misleading – given the ambiguity of the information we now have concerning the disease – that religious convictions are cited as the only motivating factor for parents to withdraw their children from AIDS education classes.
First, consider what seems to be an inevitable component in all existing educational AIDS packages: the promotion of the condom as a supposedly “responsible deterrent” – in other words, the promotion of “safer sex” through condom use. Aside from objections to the use of the condom on religious grounds, there are the public health problems, the most serious being the up-to-thirty percent failure rate of the condom. Any educational package claiming that the condom will ensure either “safe sex” or “safer sex” is misleading and should not be called “educational.”
J.K.J. St. Lawrence of the University of Mississippi Medical Centre states: “The possible consequences of condom failure when one partner is HIV infected are serious enough, and the likelihood of failure sufficiently high, that condom use by risk groups should not be described as “safe sex.” A 1987 report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also concluded: “There are no clinical (human) data supporting the value of condoms in preventing the spread of a range of diseases including human immune deficiency virus (HIV), the precursor of AIDS.”
Telling young people that by using a condom they can be safe from the AIDS virus is misleading and irresponsible. A typical characteristic of being young and vigorous is the feeling of immortality, that death is far away and only comes to others. Because of this, risk-taking is a frequent behaviour trait of teenagers. Given this predisposition in young people, it is irresponsible for adult educators to even suggest that they can be safe from contracting AIDS by using a condom.
Second, education especially directed to the young, must be accurate and must be based on principles of “truth, justice, love of country, humanity, industry, temperance and all other virtues” as stated in the Education Act of Nova Scotia. Does this ideal no longer apply? If it does not, it should be removed from the Act.
Educating the young about AIDS without any appeal to their moral values is unlikely to be effective. According to a study undertaken in San Francisco after four years of intensive AIDS education given from a purely secular perspective, positive AIDS test results rose 600 per cent. Witness also a parallel find concerning teen pregnancies: teenagers today know more about their reproductive systems and about contraceptives than any previous generation and yet teen pregnancies are higher in number than ever before. Gibing facts only about the disease will not be effective in preventing young people from contracting it, and worse still, giving them faulty information could be deadly for some of them.
One cannot help but be concerned that current educational programmes on AIDS in our schools so readily accommodate secular-humanistic “solutions” to the AIDS epidemic while neglecting possible solutions based on religious and moral values. Are we going to have to challenge those institutions we now support or abandon them altogether and develop alternate supporting institutions?
In times of crisis, Canadians have proved themselves to be of strong character, capable of facing difficulties head on – discovering the facts, analyzing them, then dealing with them honestly. Should we not be giving our young people the benefit of accurate and responsible information instead of trying to “sugar coat” the hard facts about the deadly disease of AIDS.
Why is that in many educational packages about AIDS there is usually no mention of the effectiveness of abstinence from sexual activity, an almost 100 per cent safe way of preventing AIDS infection. I fear that the reason abstinence is not promoted is that some of us have underestimated our young people. We seem to assume that they are not capable of controlling their emotions, that they are incapable of saying “no” when faced with certain risky situations. Our response to them then, because we have little faith in their ability to accurately assess the situation and respond responsibly, is to simply urge tem to lower the risk of infection rather than to emphasize and encourage the no-risk method. And all this in the name of education! Can we honestly call this approach to such a serious health threat “responsible” education?
If we as a society have been able to deal honestly and effectively with the tobacco health problems why can’t we do likewise wit the AIDS problem? Surely the necessary adjustment in lifestyles can be made in order to minimize the terrible consequences of an AIDS epidemic.
There are alternate programmes available for school use: realistic ones that offer a holistic approach to teenage sexuality based on self-esteem and respect for others. Two such programmes are Sex Respect and Love Life.
These programmes do not sell young people short and are based on the assumption that teenagers are intelligent and capable of making mature, responsible decisions.
It is important that young people receive such information about AIDS. They need to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore, we should press our leaders in both the health and educational fields to ensure that the educational programmes they offer our children should be realistic and accurate and free of misleading “solutions.” Let us ask them to appeal to those principles in our heritage which have always held us in good stead, namely, “truth, justice, humanity, temperance and all other virtues.”