Utah Strikes Down Bill Giving Parents The Option Of Sex Ed

Apparently, lawmakers don't even want parents to be able to choose to allow their kids evidence-based sex education

Utah State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. — Getty Images
Feb 07, 2017 at 4:44 PM ET

It’s no secret that Utah lawmakers are strongly in favor of abstinence-based education — but yesterday they showed just how impressively hostile they are toward comprehensive sex ed. In a 12-2 vote, the House Education Committee struck down a bill that would have merely given parents the ability to choose to opt their kid into comprehensive sex education including instruction on consent and emergency contraception.

Currently, state law requires that teachers stress the importance of abstinence when teaching sex ed. It also prohibits teachers from discussing “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior,” and “the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices,” or “sexual activity outside of marriage.” It also prohibits the “advocacy of homosexuality.” Condoms can be mentioned, for example, but they can’t be recommended as a way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

The bill, HB 215, introduced by Rep. Brian King, didn’t try to change any of that. It made no attempt to force “the intricacies of intercourse” or the “advocacy of homosexuality” — whatever that means — on the children of unwilling parents. It simply provided for an additional option: parents could opt in, with written consent, to comprehensive sex ed. It allowed for the option of “evidence-based” information on “reducing the frequency of sexual intercourse,” “reducing the number of sexual partners,” and “increasing the use of condoms and other contraceptives.” It also would have empowered teachers to “provide instruction about the health benefits and potential side effects of using contraceptives and barrier methods to prevent pregnancy, including instruction regarding emergency contraception and the availability of contraceptive methods” — again, to the children of parents who opted in.

One of the most vocal opponents of the bill is The Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative group in the state. On the group’s blog, it lays out their criticism of the text, which is chiefly that it’s impossible to encourage abstinence while also acknowledging that some students will go ahead and have sex anyway and therefore need basic safety know-how. “After they mention abstinence they teach the children that they should delay sexual initiation or just reduce how often they have sex or reduce the number of partners,” it reads. “Of course, after teaching them it is okay to have sex they teach them to increase their use of condom and other contraceptives.”

The group also links to a PDF railing against the “graphic nature” of comprehensive sex education — an example is given of a censored page from the sex-ed book “It’s Perfectly Normal” featuring a mild, and not at all explicit, cartoon illustration of a naked couple in bed (seen on page 4 in the original book).

These sorts of arguments were apparently persuasive enough that the bill was struck down with a stunningly wide margin. But Rep. King, who sponsored a similar bill that failed to pass last year, is planning to try again next legislative session. In the meantime, Utah will continue to grapple with a troubling rise in STIs, which is sending health officials scrambling for a solution, any solution — as long as it isn’t comprehensive sex ed.