Doctors defend homosexual boys: Change of policy influenced by HIV trend in under-age sex

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DOCTORS' leaders have decided that the age of consent for homosexuals should be reduced from 21 to 16 years old. The Council of the British Medical Association announced yesterday that it had agreed by an 'overwhelming majority' to the lower age, reversing a 1976 opinion that the age of consent should be reduced to 18.

Dr Sandy Macara, the council's chairman, said it made its decision based on the 'most impressively sound scientific evidence' prepared by the BMA's board of science.

The decision was influenced by the trend towards increased HIV infection and gonorrhoea in under-age men and information that the average age for a first homosexual encounter is 15.7 years.

Dr Macara said the decision was based on two principles of medicine; that the change would not cause personal harm and that it would be beneficial. 'It could be of real benefit to patients to remove the present discrimination that exists because it removes the barrier that young men may perceive in seeking from doctors and others advice about their health and medical treatment,' he said at a briefing in London yesterday.

Although young men seeking medical help would be treated in confidence their perception was that they might be exposing themselves to trouble with the law, he said. 'The further consideration is whether young people are vulnerable and need protection. In fact, the evidence is that sexual orientation is, in most cases, pretty clear by the age of 12 or 13 and in the very large majority of people by the age of 16.'

Dr Macara said there was adequate protection for vulnerable young people in the Children Act.

Dr Fleur Fisher, head of the BMA's science and ethics section, said: 'There is a great deal of concern in the profession, that because of the state of the law, it's very difficult for the promotion of aspects of sexuality and homosexual behaviour, in particular, to be available to young people. It is hard for schools and it is hard for the homosexual community to provide sound advice about the risk of HIV.

'Homosexual clubs have been very careful to be seen to operate within the laws and only relate to people over the age of 21.

'As we know from the research that the average age for the first sexual experience is under the age of 16 there is a huge gap in which we are not able to provide sound information legally, either from official sources or from the responsible unofficial network of homosexuals.'

When the council discussed the age of consent in 1976 its opinion that it should be 18 - two years above the age for women - was based on the belief that men had a 'slower rate of biological development'. Dr Macara said this has been found to be untrue.

The United Kingdom is the only nation in Europe to set the age of consent for homosexuals at 21; six countries set the limit at 18. In Spain, Malta and the Netherlands 12-year-old boys and girls can have sexual intercourse legally with older partners. It is illegal only if the child makes a complaint later.