General Articles

Utah Lawmakers and Community Organizations Work to Improve Sexuality Education Policy

Individuals and organizations from disparate ideological viewpoints are working together in Utah in order to institute a program that will better equip the state’s students to make healthy decisions regarding their sexual behavior.  The current law allows teachers to provide information about contraceptives in the classroom but they are prohibited from advocating contraceptive use. As a result, many teachers are wary of addressing contraception for fear that they will cross the line into banned territory or choose not to teach sexuality education at all because they are personally uncomfortable with the subject.[i] As a result, legislators have recognized the need to reform the law to ensure that students receive complete information, and concerned community organizations have joined the discussion. This has resulted in the unlikely coalition that includes Democratic State Senator, Stephen Urquhart; Republican State Representative, Lynn Hemingway; the Planned Parenthood Action Coalition (PPAC), which supports comprehensive sexuality education; and the Utah Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which does not.[ii]  
This interest in cooperation is a significant step forward, considering the turmoil that surrounded the subject of sex education in Utah’s schools throughout 2009. In February, 2009, Representative Hemingway introduced a bill to revise the state sex education standards that would have retained the primary focus on abstinence, but ensured that medically accurate and age-appropriate information was communicated. It also would have removed the prohibition on “the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices. The bill drew significant opposition, particularly from the PTA and the Utah Eagle Forum, the state branch of the national conservative organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, which prides itself on “[b]ringing the anti-family ‘Values’ [sic] and sex education programs to a halt.”[iii] The bill failed on March 12, 2009.  
In the months that followed, the debate over sex education continued, as Representative Hemingway remained committed to reforming the law. Community forums held in June and August 2009 drew parents, students, and community organizations both in favor of and against a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education. Many students advocated change and shared accounts of the lack of information provided in the classroom, with some telling stories of friends who had become pregnant because they didn’t have basic knowledge about birth control and contraception. The PTA and the Utah Eagle Forum continued to voice their opposition arguing that sex education is best left to parents. Some opponents even objected to the students’ involvement in the discussion, with one PTA representative characterizing the students’ efforts “to change the state law” as “so inappropriate.”[iv]  
Following the summer’s debates, Representative Hemingway and Senator Urquhart began to work together in order to develop legislation mandating a two-track program—one course would only provide information on abstinence-until-marriage while the other would provide comprehensive information. Although neither legislator had introduced a bill, the Utah State Legislature Health and Human Services Interim Committee discussed the matter at a hearing on October 21, 2009. Representative Hemingway “asked the chairs of [the] committee to delay hearing arguments until a later date,” and Senator Urquhart said at the hearing that he had left messages for the committee co-chairman, Senator D. Chris Buttars, and given Senator Buttars’s staff notice that he would not be prepared to present any information or arrange for expert testimony. Senator Buttars elected to proceed with the hearing, as he had arranged for well-known abstinence-only-until-marriage advocate Dr. Miriam Grossman to testify, at his own expense.[v]   
Dr. Grossman’s testimony offered dubious scientific evidence, including her assertions that condoms are only 30% effective at preventing the spread of genital herpes and that biannual testing for Chlamydia is insufficient to protect teenage girls against the infertility that Chlamydia can cause, as treatment for the infection is ineffective. By contrast, a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that condoms actually reduce the risk of contracting genital herpes by 30%.[vi] In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommend annual testing for Chlamydia in sexually active women, and maintain that “Chlamydia can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics.”[vii]  Although Dr. Grossman acknowledges that negative sexual health outcomes result from “gaps in knowledge,” she does not believe that adolescents should be given the information that could protect them from STDs, HIV, and unintended pregnancy.[viii] Dr. Grossman utilized the remainder of her allotted time to advance her personal crusade to vilify organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education, primarily Planned Parenthood in this case, as she has in numerous publications. Following her lengthy denigration of Planned Parenthood, which included diagrams of stick figures simulating sexual positions that she insinuated the organization displays in the classroom, the committee passed a resolution to urge the Legislature “to consider any person or organizations that promotes, recommends or teaches high-risk sexual behavior, Web sites, examples or talks,” inappropriate to operate in the public schools.[ix]
Since the October hearing, Senator Urquhart, Representative Hemingway, PPAC, and the PTA have joined together to develop a sexuality education program that adequately addresses their divergent concerns.  They have abandoned the two-track plan, which would have resulted in the state wasting valuable resources to develop an abstinence-only-until-marriage program despite the fact that such programs consistently have been proven to be ineffective. Instead, they are working on one that would include information on contraception while still stressing the importance of the parental role in sex education.[x] 
Senator Urquhart introduced his sex education bill, S.B. 54, on January 29, 2010. Although the bill stresses abstinence-until-marriage and asserts that parents should be the primary source of human sexuality information for their children, it also mandates “a general discussion of contraception with its benefits and limitations.”[xi] The bill, however, will not be considered by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which held the hearing on the matter of sex education on October 21, 2009. Instead, the Senate Rules Committee “spared [the bill] a death sentence” by transferring it to the Senate Education Committee.[xii] Angered by the change, the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Senator Buttars proclaimed that the program the bill would create was offensive to him and would be to almost all Utahns, as it would teach “bizarre sexual things like anal sex and lesbian sex.”[xiii]  In fact, the bill explicitly states that “the advocacy of homosexuality” is forbidden.[xiv] Buttars, who used his personal funds to arrange for Dr. Grossman to testify at the October 21 hearing, also stated that the bill wouldn’t “have a chance” in his committee.[xv] Although it was hoped that the bill possibly could advance out of the Senate Education Committee, it was so controversial that members of that Committee chose “not to even talk” about the bill when it was scheduled for review on February 22.[xvi]
“SIECUS commends Senator Urquhart and Representative Hemingway for working together to develop a comprehensive sex education initiative that addresses all the important information young people need to make safe and healthy decisions,” said Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at SIECUS. “We are pleased that they have moved away from a two-track plan that would continue to leave young people who receive abstinence-only-until-marriage programs at risk. All young people need information about abstinence, but they also need to be informed about contraception to protect themselves from STDs, HIV, and unintended pregnancy when they do become sexually active.” 
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[i] Lisa Schencker, “Debate continues over Utah sex ed changes,” Salt Lake Tribune, 26 August 2009, accessed 12 February 2010, <>.

[ii] Lisa Schencker, “Unlikely group teams up on sex education,” Salt Lake Tribune, 14 January 2010, accessed 12 February 12, 2010, <>.

[iii] “About Us,” Utah Eagle Forum, accessed 20 January 2010, <>.

[iv] Lisa Schencker, “Teen lobbies for broader sex ed in schools,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 September 2009, accessed 19 January 2010, <>.

[v] Lisa Schencker, “Lawmakers debate sex ed,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 October 2009, accessed 19 January 2010, <>; Audio recording, “Agenda Item 5—Health Education in Public Schools,” Utah State Legislature Health and Human Services Interim Committee, 21 October 2009, accessed 19 January 2010, <>.

[vi] Jennifer Warner, “Condoms Help Cut Risk of Genital Herpes,” WebMD Health News, 13 July 2009, accessed 22 January 2010, <>.

[vii] “STD Facts—Chlamydia,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 December 2007, accessed 21 January 2010, <>.

[viii] Audio recording, “Agenda Item 5—Health Education in Public Schools.”

[ix] Schencker, “Lawmakers debate sex ed.”

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Utah S.B. 54, 2010 General Session, § 53A-13-101 (2010), accessed 19 February 2010, <>.

[xii] Robert Gehrke, “Utah Senate panel switch spares sex-ed bill likely demise,” Salt Lake Tribune, 1 February 2010, accessed 19 February 2010, <>.

[xiii] Ibid. 

[xiv] S.B. 54, § 53A-13-101(3)(b).  

[xv] Gehrke, “Utah Senate panel switch spares sex-ed bill likely demise.”

[xvi] Lisa Schencker, “Bill to change sex education dead on arrival,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 February 2010, accessed 22 February 2010, <>.