House Bill 198, proposed by Representative Lynn Hemingway (D-Salt Lake City), seeks to create a dual track sex education program in Utah. This new bill would allow parents to choose for their child to receive either abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction or a more comprehensive approach to sex education. The bill will be considered during the 2010 state legislative session. The dual track structure of the bill closely mirrors the North Carolina Healthy Youth Act (H.B. 88), a bill that was introduced for the 2009 legislative session. A revised version of the North Carolina bill passed earlier this year.[i]
Current Utah law requires that health instruction in public schools stress abstinence-only-until-marriage, and mandates that no materials contain “advocacy of homosexuality,” “advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices,” or “advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage.”[ii] The new bill, if passed, would allow schools to offer a “comprehensive curriculum that includes abstinence but discusses medically accurate information about contraception, how to prevent teen pregnancy, and a component that will discuss sexual assault safety and awareness,” stated Melissa Bird, Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood Action Council.[iii]
Representative Hemingway describes the bill as a “public health issue,” stating at an August 26th public meeting to discuss the bill that, “Teachers can talk about contraceptives but they're not allowed to encourage their use, leaving many to avoid the topic altogether.” On the other hand, Hemingway expressed that parents should be able to determine the instruction that their child receives. “I want to be sure parents can be certain if they want abstinence-only education, their children can get that,” he stated. “I also want to be certain that if parents want to get a little more detail in their children's education, they can do that.”[iv]
The proposed two track system has been met with criticism. Health commissioner of the Utah Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Liz Zentner, does not support the dual track system, arguing that the abstinence-only-until-marriage track would be more restrictive than what current Utah law requires, while the second track offering comprehensive sex education would teach students information she believes should not be taught in school.[v] Mary Ann Kirk, a PTA member who helped design the state’s sex education curriculum, shares Zentner’s criticism and believes that the issue is the way the current curriculum is implemented.[vi]
Young people in support of the bill feel that schools need to do more to address contraception. “I feel if the option for contraceptive classes had been offered in high school, less of my friends would have become pregnant,” said Celia Coughlin, a 2004 graduate of Woods Cross High School.[vii]
West High School senior, Emma Waitzman, actively supports the bill and manages a Facebook page supporting comprehensive sex education in Utah. She argues that young people have the right to receive accurate and complete information in the classroom. Another supporter of the bill and West High student, Quinn Smith, agrees that students deserve to be informed. “[I]t’s not like we're out there trying to have everyone have sex,” said Smith. “We just want kids to have information.”[viii]
[i] “New Sex Ed Laws Pass in North Carolina and Oregon,” SIECUS Policy Updates June 2009, <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&featureid=1774&pageid=483&parentid=478>.
[iii] Annie Cutler, “Proposed Bill Could Change Sex Education in Utah,” ABC 4 News, 26 August 2009, accessed 15 September 2009, <http://www.abc4.com/content/news/state/story/Proposed-bill-could-change-sex-education-in-Utah/p_uRSKvIbUCRVLYR6etR4Q.cspx>.
[iv] Lisa Schencker, “Debate Continues over Utah Sex Ed Changes,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 26 August 2009, accessed 15 September 2009, <http://www.sltrib.com/ci_13212084?IADID=Search-www.sltrib.com-www.sltrib.com>.
[vii] Lisa Schencker, “Debate Continues over Utah Sex Ed Changes.”
[viii] Lisa Schencker, “Teen Lobbies for Broader Sex Ed in Schools.”