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Mississippi Sex Education Bill: New Strategy to Address the State’s Poor Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Outcomes Maintains Ineffective Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Approach

On February 9, 2010 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed House Bill 837.  The legislation would require every school district to implement either an “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus” curriculum. If passed, HB 837 would amend state law by mandating every school district to provide human sexuality instruction.  The bill would institute greater sex education guidelines for school districts and task state agencies with developing new strategies for addressing adolescent sexual and reproductive health outcomes; however, it would still allow school districts to teach a failed abstinence-only-until-marriage approach.[1]
 
Current state law does not require school districts to teach sex education or provide instruction in HIV, STD, or pregnancy prevention.  However, if taught, “abstinence education” must be the standard for instruction and it must stress abstinence-only-until-marriage, teaching, among other things, “the likely negative psychological and physical effects of not abstaining [from sexual activity]” and that “a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the only appropriate setting for sexual intercourse.”[2]  Under the law, local school boards have the authority to implement a sex education curriculum that does not stress abstinence-only-until-marriage, but such instruction must not contradict any of the tenets of “abstinence education” outlined in the law.[3]  The convoluted nature of the law makes it difficult for school districts to discern what they can and cannot teach, causing many school districts not to offer any formal instruction on human sexuality at all.  
 
Mississippi has the highest teen birth rate in the country and young people in the state have higher rates of risky sexual activity, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, infection than their peers nationwide.[4] Given these poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes, it is clear that Mississippi’s youth lack access to the information and health services they need to lead healthy lives. A recent report released by Planned Parenthood in Mississippi and SIECUS, Sex Education in Mississippi: Why ‘Just Wait’ Just Doesn’t Work, details the status of sex education provided in Mississippi public schools and the use of federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in the state. The report reveals that Mississippi school districts and the Mississippi Department of Human Services rely on failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programming that use fear and shame tactics ; reinforce antiquated gender stereotypes that impose a double standard on young women; provide outright, inaccurate information; and use outdated materials, some of which are 20 years old.[5]  The report makes clear that abstinence-only-until-marriage programming is the norm in Mississippi and that students are being negatively impacted by this ineffective instruction.
 
“Mississippi is failing its youth when it comes to educating teens about sexuality, and our young people deserve better,” said Felicia Brown-Williams, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood in Mississippi.
 
Several studies show that more comprehensive approaches to sex education do a better job of helping young people delay sex than do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs while also increasing the likelihood that young people will use contraception when they become sexually active.[6]  The proposed legislation, HB 837, however, would continue to leave Mississippi’s young people at risk by not ensuring that all students would receive instruction that includes life-saving information regarding the use of condoms and other forms of contraception while still stressing the value of abstinence.  In fact, the bill would further codify into law the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach that has been proven time and again to be infective and a waste of tax payer dollars.
 
The definition of “abstinence-only” instruction included in H.B. 837 mirrors the definition of “abstinence education” already contained in state law, which establishes abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction as the state standard.[7] “Abstinence-plus” instruction also is defined as including all the components of “abstinence-only education” but may be broadened to include “any other programmatic or instructional component approved by the department [of education].” In addition, information presented in an “abstinence-plus” course could not exclusively teach “instruction and demonstrations on the application and use of condoms or other contraceptives, the nature, causes, and effects of sexually transmitted diseases, or the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.”[8]  
 
If the bill passes, the Mississippi Department of Human Services would be tasked with developing programs for schools to use to teach both “abstinence-only” and “abstinence-plus” education.  Out of five prospective programs that the department would be responsible to develop, two programs created would be “abstinence-plus” programs and would provide “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives and barrier methods as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.”[9]  School districts could choose to implement one of the programs developed by the department or choose to implement a different program.
 
Because teens in Mississippi are nearly twice as likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse before the age of 13, and 50 percent more likely to have had four or more sexual partners than their peers nationwide, the state would be well served to include medically accurate information about contraception in all curricula offered.[10]  However, given the poor sexual health outcomes that impact Mississippi’s young people, instituting policy that would fail to equip all students with the resources, skills, and information necessary to make healthy decisions is clearly a step in the wrong direction. The recommendations detailed in the Sex Education in Mississippi report call for Mississippi policymakers to amend the state’s sex education law to provide real education to students by requiring all school districts that choose to teach instruction in human sexuality to provide medically accurate, evidence-based, and comprehensive sex education to students. The report also calls on lawmakers to strike current language from the law that establishes an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach as the state standard for instruction.
 
“The evidence is clear that the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach is not effective and does not equip young people with the necessary skills and information to protect themselves from STDs, HIV, and unintended pregnancy,” said Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at SIECUS.  “Public policy in the state must commit to a bold new plan to implement comprehensive sex education for all of Mississippi’s young people.  The young people of Mississippi deserve nothing less.”
 
The bill has been referred to the Senate committees on Education and Public Health and Welfare.
 
 
 


[1] House Bill 837, Mississippi 2010 legislative session, <http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2010/pdf/HB/0800-0899/HB0837PS.pdf>.
[2] Miss. Code Ann. § 37-13-171(1).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Danice K. Eaton, et al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2007,” Surveillance Summaries, vol. 
57, number SS-4 (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 June 2008), accessed 8 December
Mississippi Vital Statistics 2008, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi State Department of Health, 2008), accessed 8
“Wonder Database: Selected STDs by Age, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender, 1996-2008 Results,” Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, 30 June 2009, accessed 16 December 2009, <http://wonder.cdc.gov/>.
[5] Sex Education in Mississippi: Why ‘Just Wait’ Just Doesn’t Work, (Washington, DC: SIECUS, January 2010), <http://www.siecus.org/_data/global/images/Sex%20Education%20in%20Mississippi--Why%20%27Just%20Wait%27%20Just%20Doesn%27t%20Work.pdf>.
[6] “What the Research Says About Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” SIECUS, October 2009, <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.viewPage&pageId=482&parentID=478>.
[7] House Bill 837.
[8] Ibid.
[9] House Bill 837, Mississippi 2010 legislative session, Amendment 3, <http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2010/pdf/HB/0800-0899/HB0837PS.pdf>.
[10] Danice K. Eaton, et al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2007,” Surveillance Summaries, vol. 
57, number SS-4 (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 June 2008), accessed 8 December
Mississippi Vital Statistics 2008, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi State Department of Health, 2008), accessed 8
“Wonder Database: Selected STDs by Age, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender, 1996-2008 Results,” Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, 30 June 2009, accessed 16 December 2009, <http://wonder.cdc.gov/>.

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