Age of consent and criminal responsibility may be lowered

Turning fifteen is a big milestone in the life of a Czech: you reach the age of consent, you bear criminal responsibility and get a citizens ID, all regarded as a sign of maturity. Last week the chamber of deputies voted in favour of lowering the age of consent and criminal responsibility by one year, sparking a widespread debate among psychologists and the public as to whether such a move is wise.

The bill approved by the lower house of Parliament last week has divided people into two camps: those who feel that today's children mature earlier and should be given greater rights and more responsibility earlier on in life and those who feel that, despite their worldliness, fourteen year olds are still kids who need protection. The "vote of trust" in them has raised a cheer from many fourteen and fifteen year olds, who claim that the new bill simply reflects the way things are nowadays:

"I know that some kids of thirteen and fourteen have sex - so why not lower the age of consent? I mean, I don't think it should wind up at age ten, or something, in a few years time. But I think lowering it to fourteen is a good idea."

"I agree with it. I think the age of criminal responsibility could be lowered even further - to the age of twelve for instance. As for the age of consent, well, that's how it is. Today it is normal for a 14 year old to have a sexual life."

"I think it is very individual. Some people simply mature earlier. I know people who are more mature at 15 than others are at twenty. And people will do as they want anyway."

Although school teachers generally approve of the new bill -especially of lowering criminal responsibility- psychologists are worried. Although they know that around 17 percent of Czech teenagers start their sex lives before the age of fifteen, they claim that the amendment will leave them vulnerable to abuse. Sex therapist Petr Weiss:

"Lowering the age of consent doesn't help the children it only helps adult men who want to have sex with young girls. That's all it does."

Advocates of this bill would suggest that children mature earlier these days and that many of them are already having sex at the age of thirteen or fourteen, what would you say to that?

"But, that's not true. It is simply not true. We have representative surveys of the sexual behaviour of Czechs - they are from 1993, 1998 and 2003 - and the average age of the first intercourse for Czech men and women is 18 years. And it is not true that they mature earlier than in the past. The sexual revolution was in the 60s not the 90s! According to our surveys ten percent of boys and seven percent of girls have sex before the age of fifteen, but the average age is the same. That does not change. So why do they want to change it now? What has happened now to make them think that our children are different than children were twenty years ago? I say they are not different."

What about the argument that fourteen year old girls might want to go to their doctor and get contraceptives without having their parents present?

"But that is possible now too. And they do it. Our gynaecologists don't have a problem prescribing contraceptives for 14 year old girls. They know very well that it is better to do that than to send them away and have them come back six months later asking for an abortion."

Generally the public seems to be more in favour of lowering the age of criminal responsibility than lowering the age of consent. Legal experts point out you cannot change one without the other - because lowering the age of criminal responsibility alone would mean that many 14 year olds who are sexually active could end up in court. The amendment to the penal code has yet to be approved by the Senate. Senator Eduard Outrata says that he's been getting letters from people in his constituency suggesting that he vote in favour of lowering only the age of criminal responsibility. He explains why he feels that would be immoral:

"I don't think it is easy to define where the line should be drawn - whether fifteen or fourteen is better. On the other hand, what I am sure about is that the age of consent in sexual matters should be the same as the age of criminal responsibility, because both imply being able to distinguish between right and wrong. If we set those two things apart a person would be regarded as a child if they had sex with a partner but they'd be viewed as a grown up if they went and murdered somebody. Now, I am not quite sure that this is how it works. So I would be very uneasy if we were to move only one of the barriers and not the other."