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Taking on a topic with a long history of controversy in Utah, a lawmaker plans to present a bill Thursday that would prohibit schools from teaching teens about contraception.
Rep. Bill Wright's HB363 would change Utah's current sex education law, which allows schools to teach students about forms of contraception, though teachers cannot advocate their use. Wright's bill, however, would forbid any mention of contraception, making all schools choose between teaching abstinence-only or skipping sex education altogether, he said.
"When we promote promiscuous behavior it's the same thing as promoting alcohol or drugs," said Wright, R-Holden. "It's a ... habit that leads to the moral decline of our country, and like all these other things, we need to set a standard. If you want to find it, go find it, but we shouldn't be obligated as a society to collect tax dollars to deliver that information to you."
The bill will get its first public hearing Thursday, but it was already raising the ire of some groups Wednesday.
"With the recent story about all the unintended pregnancies, it makes more sense to educate students about having healthy sexuality to make informed decisions," said Heather Stringfellow, vice president of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.
She was referring to recently released state and national data showing Utah teen moms are more likely than others across the country to say they struggled to get birth control, thought they couldn't get pregnant at the time they had sex or believed they or their partners were sterile.
About half of Utah teens who get pregnant aren't using contraception, according to the data.
Marina Lowe, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said the bill seems to be an attempt to take away parents' options. School districts already may choose to teach abstinence only, and parents already can take their children out of sex education classes if they wish.
"It concerns us that students don't get the education we know they need by the fact that we have so many young women in the state who don't understand the consequences of sexual behavior," Lowe said.
Fearing that it will lead to more teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, the Utah PTA also opposes the bill.
"This law ignores the fact that teens are increasingly exposed to sexual messages through the media, technology, and friends," the Utah PTA said in an official statement. "Students want and need an open and honest discussion about human sexuality and the limitations of contraception to navigate through the various messages they are constantly bombarded with."
The PTA actually worked in 2010 with Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, on a bill that aimed to clarify that teachers are allowed to talk about contraception. That bill was a response to complaints that teachers are afraid to do so for fear of being accused of crossing the line into advocacy. But the bill didn't make it out of committee.
Wright's new bill has supporters, however.
"We think that government should always promote the gold standard, especially when it comes to children," said Matt Piccolo, a policy analyst with the Sutherland Institute, "and our public schools shouldn't teach children to abstain from sex but then share with them faulty prevention methods."
Dalane England, Utah Eagle Forum vice president over issues, said she's also pleased with the bill because she said it would give school districts more local control.
"It allows school districts to decide, 'You know, we would rather focus on educating children in math, reading or language arts instead of these very private, sacred issues that are best handled in the sanctity of the family and the home.'"
Wright said Wednesday the idea for his new bill came from discussion about a Planned Parenthood maturation program some schools have used for fifth- and sixth-graders.
The state school board pulled its official approval of the program last year after some complained it was not age appropriate, undermined the role of parents and gave too much information to boys and girls about each others' bodies. At the time, Wright, called the material inappropriate.
Wright also had concerns with a PowerPoint presentation developed by the State Office of Education last year about contraception. After objections, the state decided not to release that presentation which gave information about different types of contraception .
This is not Wright's first foray into sex-education law in Utah. In fact, Wright worked to craft Utah's current sex education law.
"Now, 15 years later," Wright said, "it needs some tweaking."
Tribune reporter Heather May contributed to this report.
Sex ed on the hill
What • The House Education Committee is scheduled to discuss Rep. Bill Wright's HB363, which would prohibit school districts from teaching students about contraception during sex education.
When • Thursday, 4 p.m.
Where • Room 445 at the state Capitol.