Appealing to conservative parents
concerned about the behavior of their teens, state legislators,
passed a law in June that will change the way districts teach sex
education. The legislation, sponsored by Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland),
mandates teaching high school students abstinence education. Along
with this provision, the law also mandates that parents, students,
educators, clergymen and health professionals sit on advisory
boards to determine the extent, if any, of teachings on
contraception. Although it is laudable to have parents involved in
their students’ educations, this piece of legislation flies
in the face of studies that demonstrate that teaching contraception
is a far more effective means of reducing teenage pregnancy.
The law, which comes as President Bush plans to double spending
on abstinence-only sex education, has met mixed reviews on both
sides of the ideological spectrum. Many of the review boards the
law has created are composed of parents wanting to have a say in
their students’ educations.
Unwelcome, however, is the addition of local clergy to these
boards — a requirement of the legislation. While parents and
students have the right to seek religious counsel on their own, the
curriculum of public schools is an inappropriate place for such a
council. This is a misguided and politically motivated addition
that infringes on the separation of church and state.
Yet, even the inclusion of parents into the equation should
raise eyebrows. Already, parents have the right to discuss issues
concerning sexuality with their children in the privacy of their
homes. But in the realm of public education, sex education in a
high school setting should remain a place where sexuality can
discussed openly, in an objective manner. Here, experts on
effective sex education need to be the focal point of these boards
and lead the discussion on what must be taught in the school. With
experts given the prime role in sex education decision-making,
curriculums would likely evolve from rigid abstinence-only programs
and to more comprehensive programs.
Furthermore, while a provision of the new law requires districts
to teach the best methods for the prevention of diseases such as
HIV/AIDS, it is one provision among many others emphasizing
abstinence only. Meanwhile, studies by the Sexual Information and
Education Council have shown that abstinence-only programs have no
lasting effect on students and that not teaching contraception
leads to a higher incidence of pregnancies and sexually transmitted
diseases. These highly compelling findings should be motivation
enough to warrant multi-faceted approaches to sex education in
Despite the efforts of some to advance the abstinence-only
agenda, the trend of early adulthood sexual activity cannot be
ignored. A 2003 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study
found that nearly half of U.S. teens have sex by the end of high
school. With statistics like these, it becomes clear that students
need more than abstinence-only programs.
While the new law rightly reserves a role for parents in the
curriculum-shaping process, it fails entirely in providing students
with the lessons needed to promote making healthy decisions.
Clearly, if students are presented with a comprehensive, objective
approach to contraception and abstinence, they will have the tools
to make good decisions regarding sex.