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After about two hours of impassioned debate about sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and abstinence, a legislative committee narrowly approved a bill Thursday evening that would allow Utah school districts to drop sex education.
The House Education Committee passed HB363 8-7, meaning it will now go to the House floor. Before advancing the bill, however, the panel voted to make some substantial changes to it.
Originally, the bill would, for example, have required districts choosing to teach sex education to take an abstinence-only approach, refraining from any discussion of contraception, homosexuality or sex outside marriage. Critics feared such a requirement would extend into other academic classes, such as history or literature.
The committee, however, in the last few minutes of its meeting, voted 8-7 to amend the bill to remove the ban on discussing contraception, homosexuality and sex outside marriage. Instead, the revised bill prohibits only the advocacy of those activities, along with instruction in the "use" of contraceptives.
It's language that's very similar to that of Utah's current sex-education law. But whether the amendment would mean teachers would still be allowed to discuss contraception under the bill was somewhat unclear Thursday night.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who suggested the amendment, said after the meeting the changes would allow school districts to still discuss contraception. But bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said after the meeting he would have to look at the changes more closely to determine exactly what they meant.
"I'll have to see how it relates actually to the rest of the bill," Wright said. He said he'd still prefer abstinence-only with no talk of contraception.
Either way, the amended bill would allow districts to forgo teaching about sex altogether a big shift from current law, which requires high schools to teach about the topic, though instruction must stress abstinence. Current law allows parents to take their kids out of sex education and districts may choose to teach abstinence only.
Several people rose to speak against that provision, including Liz Zentner, Utah PTA president-elect. She said she worried that if districts were allowed to skip sex education, special interests "who don't really reflect the ideals of the silent majority parents" would lobby local school boards to remove it.
Zentner noted that the PTA which she said likely represents more Utah parents than others who spoke in favor of the proposal Thursday opposes the bill.
Others argued that teens need information about sex and contraception in order to make informed choices.
"It's immoral to withhold life-saving information from a segment of our population because it doesn't fit our value system," said Cougar Hall, a Brigham Young University assistant professor who said he trains health teachers.
Mackenzie McMillen, a West High senior, said teens become sexually active with or without abstinence education.
"Not everyone has parents like mine," McMillen said, referring to the fact her parents will answer her questions, "and not all of my peers will go out and find information, and when they do, there's the risk they will find inaccurate information."
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, however, challenged the notion that kids will have sex even when told not to.
"We can teach them abstinence, tell them we believe in them, and they're not animals," Ruzicka said. "These children can say no."
Diane Robertson, with United Families Utah, said it's important to promote abstinence amid all the information kids receive today.
"If you're going to be promiscuous as a teenager, you're going to be promiscuous as an adult, and it destroys marriages," Robertson said.
And Matt Piccolo with the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, said schools should always teach the gold standard on any topic, and when it comes to sex education, that's abstinence.
Even Gov. Gary Herbert weighed in Thursday before the hearing.
"I think how we have it right now works pretty well," Herbert said of the school curriculum, adding that, personally, he supports abstinence before marriage.
Wright said it's important that kids don't get mixed messages at school.
"It might be the only place that some students hear about abstinence," Wright said. "We're not denying them anything. We're giving them an opportunity to hear about something that maybe nobody has ever taught them."
Wright gave his presentation at a table next to his granddaughter, who he said is in seventh grade. He said part of the reason he brought the small, blond girl was because "she represents the innocence of those we're really talking about."
Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.