Abstinence-only sex ed promoted

If the bill passes, public schools would be able to choose if they will teach about contraceptives.
Tuesday, December 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:03 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Some state lawmakers want to allow Missouri public schools to teach abstinence-only sex education.

Earlier this month, Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O’Fallon, pre-filed a bill that would remove the requirement that sexuality education curricula include information about contraceptives.

“This really is going to promote local control,” Davis, the sponsor of the bill, said. “It will have no effect on the school districts that want to spend their time and money teaching that.”

Missouri schools will have the option to continue teaching about contraceptives even if the bill is passed. Columbia would continue to do that, said Sara Torres, the science and health coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.

Davis said stressing abstinence but teaching students about contraceptives is confusing. If sex before marriage is inappropriate, she said, then schools shouldn’t teach students how to protect themselves during sex.

“How much do you think the taxpayer would be satisfied if school districts were teaching a class on how to burglarize a home without getting caught?” she said.

Some who work with young people and sex-education curricula, however, believe not teaching students about contraceptives puts them at risk.

Davis’ bill was filed the same day that a U.S. congressional committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., released a report saying many federally funded abstinence-only programs contain false or misleading information. The report said more than 80 percent of the programs’ curricula include erroneous information. For example, one curriculum analyzed by the committee challenges the notion that condoms help curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, while another teaches that a woman becomes pregnant one out of seven times that couples use condoms.

The report cited a 2002 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy which concluded that there is not enough evidence to prove that abstinence-only programs postpone young people’s first sexual experiences. Yet the report said that, from 2001 to 2005, federal spending on abstinence-only programs will more than double.

Any public school program in Missouri that receives federal funding for sexuality education is required to adhere to abstinence-only rules, said Mari Ann Bihr at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Currently, Missouri public schools are required by law to teach students about HIV prevention, Bihr said. Individual school boards decide what beyond HIV prevention — if anything — their schools will teach about sex. State law mandates that any curricula about sex must stress abstinence as the best choice, must give students medically accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases and must provide them accurate information about contraceptives.

Davis said she was not suggesting that students shouldn’t be made aware of contraceptives, but that those conversations should happen between the student and parents. She said students whose parents are unable or unwilling to talk with their children about sex should seek out a physician.

“There’s a point where public school needs to try to stop being everything to those students,” she said. “We need to look at what the purpose of public school is. There’s a point where it is stepping over the line and interfering with the family.”

Davis said that teaching young people about contraceptives lulls them into a false sense of security, and that abstinence-only programs would lead more young people to choose abstinence.

“We’re seeing junior high kids coming down with gonorrhea of the mouth, syphilis of the mouth,” she said. “Unless we have a cultural expectation, we’re doing these kids a worse disservice.”

But Lynn Fair, a nurse practitioner at the local health department, works with kids in Columbia who have sexually transmitted diseases. She said abstinence-only sex education is inadequate.

“Abstinence absolutely is your best choice, there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “But there’s gobs of kids out there (for whom) that’s not their choice. They don’t know how to protect themselves, or where to go or what to do.”

Maureen Coy, social services specialist at Columbia/Boone County Health Department, said she fears students who are taught in abstinence-only programs won’t have a basic knowledge of contraception. Parents sometimes lack accurate, up-to-date information, and the medical community is overwhelmed, she said. The lack of a basic understanding of contraceptives could lead to serious consequences, Coy said, including a rise in teen pregnancy rates, which have been declining nationally in recent years.

Bihr, a health and physical education consultant, said the state education department has a framework school districts can use to develop their own curriculum. The framework stresses abstinence and includes medically accurate information about contraceptives but doesn’t include teaching students how to use a condom. Sexuality education at an appropriate age level, as long as parents can opt out, is an important aspect of the child’s development.

Columbia public schools teach students that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, Torres said. She pointed out that parents have always been notified of the “human sexuality” unit in health classes, and they are allowed to pull their children from those classes.

Davis said school boards should listen to their constituents and then decide how to approach sexuality education.

“Right now they don’t even have that choice,” she said.

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