Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sex-ed bill to require abstinence and monogamy be taught nears final passage; foes want comprehensive curriculum

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A Senate bill to require Kentucky schools to teach abstinence and monogamy in sex-education programs moved out of the House Education Committee March 20, with changes that removed all references to marriage. It was scheduled for a vote in the full House March 22, but was not called up for a vote.

Sen. Stephen Meredith
Senate Bill 71, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, originally called for teaching that abstinence from sex "outside of marriage" is the expected standard for school-age children, but the House changed it to say that educators must teach that abstinence is the desirable goal for such children.

The amended bill also requires Kentucky's students to be taught that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid unintended pregnancy or getting a sexually transmitted disease. The original language referred to "out-of-wedlock" pregnancy.

It would also require students to be taught that the best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to establish a "permanent, mutually faithful, monogamous relationship." That language replaced the original wording, "in the context of marriage."

The bill says "instruction shall include, but not be limited to" the content it specifies. Kentucky has no specified curriculum for sex education, though the state Department of Education is working on one.

Meredith spent a good deal of time talking about the push-back he has received from opponents of the bill, singling out Planned Parenthood, which he said opposes abstinence education because it has a "hidden agenda" to advance its "business model." He made similar comments on the Senate floor in January.

"They don't want our children just to be sexually aware. They want them to be sexually active, as early as possible," Meredith, a former hospital administrator, told the panel. "Planned Parenthood doesn't make money from abstinence and monogamy. They make their money from treating sexually transmitted disease, selling contraceptives and abortions."

Senate Democratic Leader Ray Jones of Pikeville called out Meredith in the chamber in January for similar comments, saying it was "preposterous" to suggest that any group wanted children to be harmed or abused. Jones voted for the bill.

Tamarra Wieder, director of external affairs at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky, said after the committee meeting, "Planned Parenthood is a health-care provider. We want to make sure that everybody has access to information regarding their body so that they can make healthy choices, and that includes education that goes beyond abstinence only."

Other foes of the bill disputed Meredith's assertion that they don't want abstinence and monogamy to be taught as part of a comprehensive curriculum. "Abstinence is taught in every comprehensive sexuality education curriculum," Rev. Dawn Cooley of Louisville told the panel, and suggested that a comprehensive curriculum is what they should be voting on.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel
The Senate had an opportunity to do just that in a floor amendment filed by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, in January, but the lawmakers  voted it down with a rousing "no" voice vote. The bill passed 32-5.

Harper Angel's amendment would have required Kentucky's health education standards to line up with national standards that call for "medically accurate, age-appropriate information on a broad set of topics, including and related to human development, relationships, decision making, as well as abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention."

Harper Angel told senators, "If the General Assembly is going to mandate certain standards, these standards need to be comprehensive health standards, not moral standards."

In committee, Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, told Meredith that his bill was driven by a personal belief that he was trying to codify, and asked him why this was a political issue.

"There is a definite benefit to society," Meredith replied. "You see that many of the things that we are struggling with in our country is because those relationships aren't there. You look at the number of children who are raised by single parents today and we know immediately they are placed into a position of financial disadvantage that children who are born in a relationship with two people don't face. So I think this is a definite benefit to society and can't be discounted, shouldn't be discounted."

Scott responded, "As a single parent I disagree with you." That drew applause.

Retiring Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, said in support of the bill that because more than half the people below the federal poverty level are single mothers, abstinence education must be part of the curriculum.

Opponents of the bill said its mandate-only approach, instead of mandating a comprehensive curriculum, sends a strong message to schools to teach abstinence-only curriculums -- which they say have been proven ineffective.

Kristen Mark, an associate professor in health education at the University of Kentucky, noted that Kentucky has the  seventh highest unintended-pregnancy rate in the U.S. and 58 percent of Kentucky high-school students report they have had sex by the 12th grade.

"Comprehensive sex education -- where abstinence is absolutely encouraged and is absolutely included, despite what might have been said in the last panel -- has worked in lowering unintended pregnancy, decreasing sexually transmitted infection rates and postponing sexual involvement among young people," Mark said. "These are goals we can all agree on. The data are very clear here."

Mark told the committee that it's important for Kentucky's children to grow up knowing how to navigate sexual experiences in a healthy way, and emphasizing abstinence doesn't do that.

"We really shouldn't be surprised by the MeToo movement," she said, referring to the campaign against sexual harassment. "We shouldn't be surprised that girls and women and boys and men don't know how to navigate consent, even in the best of sexual situations. We should not be surprised that victims of sexual assault are often very reluctant to ask for help. This is a result of shame-based, abstinence-only sex education, the kind that this bill supports."

Two supporters of the bill who spoke were from Lifehouse Maternity Home in Louisville. Its website says it is "designed to help women discover God's love for them and their children."

Michelle Bourke, donor-relations director for the home and a former teacher, said that with "our schools passing out birth control and condoms like candy," it's important for Kentucky's children to also be taught about abstinence, and stressed that the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is through abstinence.

Monica Morgan, a resident of the home, told the panel that her decision to become "secondarily abstinent" allowed her to live a life of not worrying about sexually transmitted infections or becoming pregnant again. She stressed the importance of letting children know there are often unintended consequences of having sex, and that the only way to avoid them is to abstain.

The bill passed the committee 15-3 vote and now heads to the House floor for a vote. Scott and Reps. Mary Lou Marzian and Reginald Meeks, also of Louisville, voted no.

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