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Recent Legislation in New York and Washington Advances Sexuality Education; Missouri Legislation Moves to Tighten Sexuality Education

So far in the 2007 state legislative session, several attempts have been made both to advance and restrict sexuality education. New York and Washington have brought forth bills to strengthen access to sexuality education, while Missouri has tried to deny young people access to full, accurate information.

On January 23, 2007, the Healthy Teens Act (Assembly Bill 2856/Senate Bill 1342) was introduced in the New York State Legislature by Assembly member Richard Gottfried (D-75th) and Senator George Winner (R-53rd).  This bipartisan bill would secure funding for age-appropriate and medically accurate sexuality education for youth in New York State since there currently is no designated funding stream for comprehensive sexuality education in schools.  If this act passes, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), school districts, school-based health centers, and community-based organizations would be able to apply for grants in order to develop and implement programs that provide students with real sexuality education.1  It is hoped that the programs made possible by this act will provide at-risk adolescents with the information, assistance, skills, and support to enable them to make responsible decisions about sexual activity.  The legislation was favorably reported out of the Assembly Health Committee in early March with no negative votes.

On January 30, 2007, the Healthy Youth Act (House Bill 1855/Senate Bill 5297) was introduced in the Washington State Legislature by Representative Shay Schual-Berke and Senator Mary Margaret Haugen.  In early March, the Washington State Senate passed the Healthy Youth Act by a vote of 30 – 19.  This act would require that all sexuality education taught to students in Washington State adhere to the Guidelines for Sexual Health Information and Disease Prevention, which include:

  • inclusion of medical and scientific accuracy in sexual health education program content;
  • instruction and materials must be age-appropriate and appropriate for use with students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and students with disabilities; and
  • sexual health education must include support for abstinence, but not to the exclusion of disease and pregnancy prevention.2

“These bills and others like them across the country suggest that saner policies based on public health and family wellbeing are seeing greater promise,” said William Smith, vice president for Public Policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

Conversely, several state bills have been introduced that would have a negative impact on sexuality education in publicly funded schools. In Missouri, House Bill 716 and Senate Bill 432 would change Missouri’s law from explicitly requiring schools to teach “the latest medically factual information” about contraception to requiring that students are presented with “information on contraceptives, pregnancy and abortion, in a manner consistent with the provisions of the Federal Abstinence Education Law.”

The federal government’s abstinence-only-until-marriage program includes an eight-point definition of “abstinence education” that  states, among other things,  that programs must: have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children; and teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. To conform to this definition, programs typically use scare tactics, rely on messages of shame, discourage contraceptive use, suggest premarital abstinence is a cure-all, promote marriage as the only acceptable family structure, ignore LGBTQ young people, and potentially retraumatize survivors of sexual abuse.

Moreover, because federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs must have as their “exclusive purpose” promoting abstinence outside of marriage, programs may not in any way advocate contraceptive use.   At the federal level, the law does not allow “promotion” of contraceptive use which has been interpreted to mean that programs cannot include any positive discussions of contraception or condoms in preventing pregnancy or STDs.  If Missouri is held to this same standards, schools in that state would be unable to discuss contraception except to teach their failure rates and possible side effects.

HB 716 and SB 432 would also forbid schools from inviting a person or entity who “is a provider of abortion services” to present human sexuality or sexually transmitted disease instruction in classrooms. This clause is meant to target family planning providers, such as Planned Parenthood, that are proponents of comprehensive sexuality education from providing instruction or programming in schools.
 
When questioned about the potential ban on comprehensive sexuality education classes in Missouri, the Senate Bill’s sponsor, Senator Gary Nodler confusingly insisted that the bill would allow the state to qualify for federal sex education funding.3 Yet, Missouri already receives federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding— the only federal “sex education” funding.  When questioned about which types of contraception would be taught under SB 432, Senator Nodler refused to answer.4

Michelle Trupiano of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri explained the fears of advocates, “In essence, this bill would dismantle our current comprehensive sex education law.”5  HB 716 was referred to the rules committee and SB 432 was rolled into an omnibus bill designated as SCS SB 370, 375 and 432.

Another bill, House Bill 63, sponsored by Rep. Davis would similarly require schools to follow the so-called “Federal Abstinence Education Law,” but goes further to include anti-choice language requiring “scientifically accurate information…on the development of the unborn child from fertilization until birth.” The bill states that “at fertilization an unborn child’s life begins” and requires that information be presented including, “the unborn child’s gender is determined at fertilization; an unborn child’s heartbeat and brainwaves can be detected during the first trimester of pregnancy; the unborn child has growth and development of various body organs and limbs, fingerprints, and sensory awareness long before birth; and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use by the mother can be harmful to the developing unborn child.”

HB 63 would also change Missouri law by requiring that parents or legal guardians give an “affirmative response, in writing” that students may participate in human sexuality instruction. This is referred to as an “opt-in” policy. Currently, Missouri law R.S. 170.015 allows for an “opt-out” policy giving parents the “right to remove the student from any part of the district’s human sexuality instruction.”  The bill was referred to the Special Committee on Family Services.

For more information regarding the Healthy Teens Act in New York, please visit the Family Planning Advocates of New York State at www.fpaofnys.org.

For more information regarding the Healthy Youth Act in Washington, please visit the Healthy Youth Alliance at www.healthyyouthalliance.org.

For more information regarding legislation in Missouri, please visit http://www.ppadvocates.org/PPMissouri/homepage.html

References

Family Planning Advocates of New York State, “Healthy Teens Act Introduced in NYS Senate and Assembly: Bipartisan Legislation Would Provide Funding for Real Sex Education for Youth,” Press Release published 23 January 2007, accessed 20 February 2007, <http://getthefactsny.org/documents/PR-DayofAdvocacy-1-23-07.pdf>.

“Youth, “Equal Rights Washington (2007), accessed 20 February 2007, <http://www.equalrightswashington.org/issues/youth.html>.

Bob Priddy, “Sex Education Bill Questioned” Missourinet 19 February 2007, accessed 21 February 2007, <http://www.missourinet.com/gestalt/go.cfm?objectid=DD7793A4-D7F5-6C57-C86683DB713E271D>.

Ibid.

Matt Franck, “Missouri sex education bill aligns with U.S. model” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 15 February 2007 accessed  21 February 2007, <http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/missouristatenews/
story/D0236F66A261546A86257283001200F7?OpenDocument
>.


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