Proponents of "comprehensive" sex education claim that sexually-transmitted disease and pregnancy are rampant among Utah teens and, therefore, the state's health curriculum needs to be "updated." They want the curriculum to include more explicit instruction in contraception, and they want teachers to encourage students to use it.
Digging into the data leads us to a different conclusion. During the past decade, chlamydia infection rates among Utah's youth have increased noticeably, but pregnancy rates have risen only slightly and gonorrhea rates increased until 2006, but have since plummeted.
According to data from the Utah Department of Health, chlamydia infection rates for Utahns ages 10-19 increased 88 percent from 1999-2008.
However, the health department explains that this reported increase is "partly due to increased testing and use of increasingly accurate tests." Thus, though the actual infection rate is increasing, it is probably not "skyrocketing" as purported.
Even though testing for gonorrhea has also increased considerably, gonorrhea infection rates have fallen 54 percent since 2006 -- 10 percent below the rate in 1999. Also, in 2008 the number of Utah teens with HIV/AIDS was only two.
To put these numbers in perspective, consider that in 2008, fewer than one half of 1 percent of Utahns ages 10-19 had an STD. In the same year, Utah ranked 48th in chlamydia and 46th in gonorrhea among the states. Utah also ranks 43rd in unmarried teen pregnancy. Just 1.4 percent of Utah girls had children out of wedlock in 2008, which is 16 percent below the rate in 1999.
These data hardly paint the picture of a crisis. Instead, they indicate that overall our youth are doing quite well, and, in fact, are among the nation's leaders in reproductive health. Still, we should not disregard the relative few who do struggle with these problems. We should strive to help every child in need.
The solution, however, is not to require extensive instruction in contraception for all students in order to target problems that affect a small fraction of them, especially when the effectiveness of "comprehensive" education is highly debatable. Looking into why gonorrhea rates are declining might help us identify a better way.
In 2006, the same year gonorrhea rates started to fall, state and local health officials decided to target gonorrhea. They boosted their efforts to track, treat and prevent the disease, which included more patient education and partner identification and testing. UDOH believes that rapidly decreasing gonorrhea rates are due in large part to these continued efforts.
The health department's success suggests that targeted efforts by professional health practitioners in non-school settings can provide more appropriate and effective solutions to these health issues rather than involving schools that prefer to focus on academics.
After all, pregnancy and STD prevention and treatment are personal medical issues that require personal attention.
Medical practitioners, not the local health teacher, are best equipped to provide parents and their children with the most personalized, medically-accurate, age-appropriate information available to meet their needs.
There is no reproductive health crisis among Utah's youth.
Making wholesale changes to the public school curriculum would unnecessarily impact all students and concern many parents.
Instead, the state should retain its current curriculum, and health practitioners in private and public clinics should redouble their efforts to assist our most vulnerable youth.
This approach is working with gonorrhea. It can work with other health problems, too.
Matthew C. Piccolo is a policy analyst at Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy organization in Salt Lake City.