Secret papers reveal Catholic Church opposed HIV education in 1980s

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The Catholic Church opposed sex education aimed at reducing HIV infection rates, newly released documents show.

 

Formerly classified documents have revealed that the Roman Catholic Church opposed government plans for sex education to combat the growing number of HIV/AIDS related deaths during the 1980s.

The Herald reported today that the church effectively “acted as a roadblock to efforts to halt an explosion of deaths in Scotland”.

Records of a UK Government committee that was established to formulate a response to the challenge of HIV and public concern surrounding HIV/AIDS, have been made public after being released today by the National Archives. The records underline the difficulties the Thatcher government experienced in attempting to neutralise the threat of HIV/AIDS, not least in relation to public attitudes and fear of backlash or scandal.

The papers show that government ministers of the time entered into dialogue with a number of churches in order to gain their support for a new approach to sex education in schools – as well as other measures that were controversial at the time, including providing sterile needles to drug users.

A government advertising campaign, aimed at better informing people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, was opposed by some religious groups.
A government advertising campaign, aimed at better informing people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, was opposed by some religious groups.

While these attempts to court churches appeared to work in England, in Scotland the government accounted resistance and hostility – particularly, but not exclusively, from the Roman Catholic Church. This was in spite of the large number of HIV cases in Scotland at the time, with Dundee and Edinburgh both experiencing high infection rates.

The papers also reveal that the Thatcher government had considered covertly testing hospital patients for HIV in order to create a more accurate understanding of how many people were affected by the virus. This proposal was, however, rejected on the grounds that it would be unethical and fraught with legal dangers.

Disturbingly, the papers show that former Ayr MP and Defence Secretary George Younger had called for “a purge” of those with HIV from the military services. This was opposed by other government ministers.

One of the key proposals discussed by ministers included introducing HIV-focused sex education, which included an animated film showing how to use a condom. The intention was for the film to be shown to 13 to 16 year olds. While this seems relatively uncontroversial now, at the time it provoked a robust response from the Catholic Church and some other Christian denominations.

Malcolm Rifkind (Photo: Robert Ward)
Malcolm Rifkind (Photo: Robert Ward)

The government argued that the threat of HIV/AIDS was so significant that young people should be armed with the facts, especially as many would already be sexually active. However, the then Secretary of Sate for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind, reported that north of the border responses had been “less favourable” and that there had been “strong reactions” from the Catholic Church. The papers record: “Many respondents had felt that it placed insufficient emphasis on the role of intravenous drug-taking as a means of spreading AIDS, which was a particular problem in Scotland. More importantly, the churches in Scotland had expressed concern that the video failed to provide clear ethical and moral guidance, in particular that it fostered the impression that sexual relations between children under the age of consent was acceptable.”

In spite of the level of opposition and the committee’s obvious disappointment, Mr Rifkind had made the video available to local education authorities in Scotland and letting them make the decision as to whether to show it to school pupils.

Another campaign, which saw a leaflet entitled “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” delivered to every home in the UK, also encountered opposition in Scotland and Northern Ireland largely because of the stance of key religious denominations. The papers confirm that “the reactions of the churches in Scotland and Northern Ireland were more hostile to the Government’s handling of the problem than the Church of England had been…The Free Presbyterian Church in Scotland had, for example, reacted adversely to the recent announcement of limited schemes for the supply of clean hypodermic needles to drug misusers. The co-operation of these churches with the Government’s campaign could not be taken for granted.”

Norman Fowler launched an HIV/AIDS education initiative in the 1980s.
Norman Fowler launched an HIV/AIDS education initiative in the 1980s. (Photo: PA)

The Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, also had concerns about the damage public campaigns could do. When her health secretary, Norman Fowler, launched a newspaper HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, Thatcher was appalled by the section on “risky sex”, saying: “I should have thought it could do immense harm if young teenagers were to read it.” This was in spite of Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, informing her that while there had only been 512 confirmed cases in the UK, experts estimated that 25,000 people could be HIV positive.

The newly-released documents also point to the government’s sensitivity towards religious organisations. In relation to an HIV screening programme for pregnant women that had been established in Dundee and Edinburgh, due to the “particularly acute” situation in those cities, the papers state: “In the event of a pregnant woman being found to be HIV positive, termination of the pregnancy might be considered. Particular care would have to be taken, however, of the inevitable sensitivity of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland on this account.”

Intriguingly, the papers also show that the Thatcher government had privately been considering sponsoring the development of a condom specifically for anal sex, but made no public announcements for fear of scandal.

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