Many Catholic parents in Toronto were relieved to hear that a letter from Cardinal Carter, to accompany the AIDS education package into the separate schools, would clarify the intent of the programme. Others, instinctively uneasy that young children were to be exposed to such a programme, were reassured to learn that they would be notified before the programme was introduced and that opportunities would be provided for them to vet the material.
That was the intent. However, in at least one Toronto Catholic School the reality was different. One mother learned that on the AIDS education had started only when her grade 9 daughter came home and asked her to explain anal sex. No letter had been sent home by the school and the programme was taught by a supply teacher three days before the Cardinal issued his letter. This mother did not have the opportunity to either review the programme nor to give permission for her daughter to attend.
An isolated incident? Perhaps, unfortunate though it is. But since, the first article in the series was published in the November issue of The Interim, we have received an unprecedented number of telephone calls from parents alarmed about the tone of the programme, often unsure of what they should do for the best, and frustrated by the apparent indifference of some school principals and teachers to their concerns.
The Cardinal’s letter
The Cardinal’s letter, issued last November 17, is addressed only to teachers. It reiterates Church teaching on chastity, family planning and homosexuality and points out this must be “clearly set forth as the basis for all instruction associated with ADIS education.” He goes on to reiterate the rights of parents and the role of teachers, as follows:
“We maintain the prior rights and duties of parents in regard to the education of their children in these sensitive areas. Parents accordingly have every right to withdraw their children from classes when these curriculum units are being taught and to instruct them personally and responsibly on this important subject.
“I am confident that our Catholic teachers will approach this task conscientiously and prayerfully, with the utmost sensitivity and prudence. The duty to inform the minds and safeguard the health of their pupils must be balanced by the obligation to preserve the innocence of children who are in their charge as a sacred trust.
“Great care must be taken to avoid the use of overly explicit language, and in the use of some case studies and videos, the details of which might disturb and upset young minds. Further, the use of any approach or exercise that would trivialize the sacred gift of human sexuality must be avoided. Teachers may well judge that some of the information provided in the program will be more suitable for use in answering questions posed privately by more mature students outside the classroom context.”
The Cardinal appears to acknowledge indirectly that the AIDS programme has the potential to damage students and yet he does not go so far as to withdraw approval, rather he leaves it up to individual teachers to judge how far they should go. “What takes place in each school, in each classroom,” he says, “depends on the local situation, the sophistication of the pupils, the desires of the parents and the sensitivity of the subject matter.”
The Cardinal does not address the charges of some critics who find the programme contains misinformation and ignores scientific evidence which goes against some of the “facts” presented.
It must be acknowledged that compiling any information package on AIDS is daunting when new discoveries are being made almost daily. And, in fact, the Institute of Catholic Education package warns teachers against “absolutizing even factual, medical statements.”
Nevertheless, the lessons tell students over and over that AIDS cannot be transmitted through so-called “casual contact” and asserts that the public blood supply has been pure since November 1985 (when the Red Cross began screening donations for the virus).
Although the recorded cases of transmission through non-sexual contact with an infected person are few to date, they do exist.
One case (reported in the British medical journal, The Lancet in 1984), was an elderly woman in Boston whose only known exposure to the AIDS virus was through kissing her infected husband. He was impotent as the result of surgery, and had been infected through a blood transfusion.
A second case (reported in 1986), involved a young child in Germany who was infected after three years of close contact with an infected child.
In 1985, the Wall Street Journal reported on a study conducted in Zaire which showed that those living the same household as an AIDS patient have a 300 per cent higher risk of becoming infected that does the general population.
And the AIDS virus is not as fragile as many would like us to believe. Reports from both the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the U.S. Institute of Health state that the virus has survived outside the human body for 10 to 15 days, at room temperature, even when dried out in a petrie dish (which means it can live on household surfaces).
At the moment, public discussion on the implications of casual contact of the uninfected with the infected, centers on the rights of the infected to remain active participants in society. Public health officials are quick to insist that they pose no danger and the ICE programme reflects these official attempts to soothe what are termed irrational fears.
Certainly, the ICE programme handles attitudes towards friends who have AIDS with sympathy and understanding, telling students that people with AIDS feel isolated and frightened; they need compassion and caring. The programme however, completely avoids any discussion of the other side of the coin: elementary health precautions against infection.
While the risk of catching AIDS through casual contact may be considered slight in light of today’s knowledge of the spread of the disease, it is premature to teach students that it does not exist. It is also premature to assert, as the ICE programme does, that the blood supply is safe. Recent news reports indicate that the blood supply is still contaminated and that a second AIDS virus, HIV-2, has been identified in Africa. Speaking on the radio late last year, a Red Cross official announced that there were no plans to begin testing for the second virus as there was not evidence yet that the virus had spread to North America.
AIDS and abortion
Many pro-lifers believe that AIDS-infected women will be pushed into having abortions should they become pregnant. Pro-abortion propaganda has no place in a programme designed for Catholic schools, and yet the ICE programme comes very close to saying that abortion is an accepted option for AIDS-infected women.
A grade 7 case study discusses the situation of a woman who contracted AIDS either through her own intravenous drug abuse or from her bisexual husband. Her baby is born with AIDS. The students are taught that there is no cure for the baby, and that such babies usually live less than two years. Since it is not possible to prevent the virus passing over to the unborn child, students are told “At present, any woman who knows she has AIDS is advised to consult her doctor before planning a pregnancy.”
The fact that (it is believed) transmission of the virus from mother to child occurs in about 50 per cent of pregnancies, is not mentioned. Nor, to be fair, is the word “abortion” itself used.
Perhaps grade 7 students too young to link AIDS and abortion but the lesson as written passes up an ideal opportunity to develop the pro-life philosophy. There is no suggestion that the class might consider that an AIDS-infected baby is a truly innocent victim of the disease, that life is valuable, however short or long lived it may be.
As information about the programme begins to circulate, some parents are finding a complete disregard for their rights – and responsibilities – by some school boards. In Kingston, Mary Ellen Douglas, a former school trustee and chairwoman of Campaign Life Coalition Ontario, wrote to the Frontenac-Lennox and Addington County Separate School Board requesting that her five children be excused from the classroom when the AIDS programme is taught. Her request was denied.
Mrs. Douglas’ action came after she discovered that the Frontenac board had approved a policy allowing “resources from outside agencies” to be used “to assist in the preparation and delivery” of programmes on human sexuality.
“It is a very sad situation indeed,” wrote Mr. And Mrs. Douglas in their letter to the board, “when men and women chosen by the electorate to represent us in the important co-operative task of educating our children in our faith, feel so insecure that they must run to secular organizations for materials to carry out this task.”
“Your insistence,” the letter continues, “that materials from outside agencies could in any way be as valuable as those resources already available through the Catholic Church destroys, in our minds, your credibility and destroys all confidence we might have that the Separate School Board is capable of assisting us in the teaching of sexual morality to our children.”
In turning down the Douglases’ request, Raymond Doyle (the director of education) defended the AIDS programme. “These documents are Catholic in content and intent,” he wrote, “and will help our students to develop Catholic moral values and to live virtuous lives as Catholics.”
“The Board wishes to inform you that it cannot grant your request,” he continued. “Although the Board acknowledges that you, as parents, have the original responsibility to teach your children, it does not excuse the Board from its responsibility to provide the education programme as determined by its authority to do so. It has been, and continues to be, the policy of this Board to require all students in its schools to attend the programmes as provided by the Board.”
The Frontenac Board’s policy to overrule parental wishes is in direct conflict with the Charter of the Rights of the Family, approved by Pope John Paul II in October 1983.”
“Since they have conferred life on their children,” the Charter states, “parents have the original, primary and inalienable right to educate them; hence they must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children.
“Parents have the right to ensure that their children are not compelled to attend classes which are not in agreement with their own moral and religious convictions. In particular, sex education is a basic right of the parents and must always be carried out under their close supervision, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.
Along with rights come responsibilities and John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, makes this clear. He repeats the Second Vatican Council statement:
“…since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it.”
The rights and duty of parents as educators is “irreplaceable and inalienable,” say the Pope, “incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.”
No written policy
Mrs. Douglas’ response to the Frontenac Board’s assertion that she could not withdraw her children from classes which she found unacceptable was to provide the board with material showing that indeed she could. In addition to the Charter of Rights of the Family, she provided copies of Cardinal Carter’s letter, assuring Toronto Catholic parents that their rights were paramount in this area, and a letter from Bishop Sherlock of London, containing similar statements in regards to the Family Life programme.
Her action has resulted in the Frontenac Board’s Policy Committee recommending that the Board withdraw its policy allowing outside agencies to be used as resources in the Catholic schools. The matter of her parental rights is still under discussion.
The Board now tells Mrs. Douglas that there is no written policy permitting parents to withdraw children from classes they find objectionable, nor is it written that they may not withdraw their children. It is, she is told, more an unwritten understanding that if parents send children to Catholic schools, then they are presumed to have given blanket permission for their children to attend all programmes of the school.
The most commonly heard defence of all types of sex-education programmes from educators is that most parents do not fulfill their roles in this area and therefore the school has to sep in. Most parents, they say, either do not care about such programmes or are glad that the school teaches a subject about which they are uneasy.
Many parents do care and do fulfill their responsibilities in this area. They want school programmes that reinforce their teaching on moral matters, not programmes that subtly undermine and negate their work. Many more would be grateful for help in this area; and desire guidance at the parish level and access to solid reading material for themselves and for home teaching.
Other parents, already disillusioned by trends to secularize the Catholic faith in the school system, see the AIDS programme as the last straw. Some are withdrawing their children completely from the system, opting for home schooling.
In Ontario, a new group tentatively called the Ontario Association of Catholic Families, has been formed in order to help parents struggling with such issues.
Parental reaction to – and rejection of – the AIDS programme is beginning to surface and educators may well be surprised at this reaction. Whether or not changes will be made to the ICE programme to make it acceptable remains to be seen, but it is clear that an increasing number of parents have reached the point where they are not longer willing to accept that the professionals know best what their children need.