MADISON, Wis. — Democrats blasted a Republican proposal Wednesday to dismantle a state law that requires schools that offer sex education to include contraceptives in their lessons, branding the measure hypocritical and irresponsible during a testy public hearing.
Dozens of people jammed the proceeding before the Senate education committee. The hearing quickly became another debate over whether abstinence or contraception is more effective at curtailing teen pregnancies and sexual diseases.
One woman toted a 2-foot crucifix and a portrait of the Virgin Mary into the room. Another woman held a sign that proclaimed abstinence doesn't work. Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, who wrote the original law, told the committee she considered bringing condoms to the hearing so Republicans could see they're not scary.
"I feel like you're killing my baby," Grigsby told the Republicans on the panel. "This is a radical social agenda coming from across the aisle ... I want my children to go to school and learn about something that ... is based on evidence."
Republicans have bristled over Grigsby's so-called Healthy Youth Act since Democrats passed it two years ago.
The measure mandates that schools that choose to offer sex education must use a multi-faceted curriculum that includes proper contraceptive use. Juneau County District Scott Southworth, a Republican and evangelical Christian, was so convinced that teaching proper contraception would lead to more teen sex he threatened last year to charge teachers who taught it with contributing to the delinquency of minors.
Now, though, Republicans have complete control of state government. Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, one of the most socially conservative members of the GOP caucus, introduced a bill last week that would dramatically rewrite the act.
Under the measure, schools that choose to offer sex education would no longer have to address contraception in any way. They would, however, be required to stress abstinence as the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and disease. They also would be required to teach parental responsibilities and the benefits of marriage.
The proposal, backed by Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, also loosens the definition of medically accurate information, dictates the makeup of parent-teacher-clergy boards that advise school districts on sexual education and repeals provisions that allow health care providers to teach sex education in schools.
A smiling Lazich told the committee the bill was about giving school districts control over their sex education curriculums. She stressed districts would still be able to teach contraceptive use if they so choose.
"The bill ... provides school districts with autonomy to create a program that fits them," she said.
Democrats didn't buy it, noting the bill lays out its own mandates. They said they feared repealing the contraception requirement would leave a void children will fill with information gleaned online.
"I don't know how anyone can say with a straight face this is about local control," Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, testified. "This bill is just clearly anti-science ... this bill is so irresponsible."
The committee's chairman, Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said the panel wouldn't vote on the bill Wednesday, but debate over the measure continued for several hours.
Clare Stiennon is a 17-year-old senior at St. Ambrose Academy, a private school in Madison with about 70 students.
The school, which uses an abstinence-only sex education curriculum, isn't subject to the Healthy Youth Act, but Stiennon still complained that the state isn't teaching children to be responsible. Lazich's bill respects kids' ability to choose abstinence, she said.
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"We're becoming adults," she said. "We have the capability to make decisions. We'll rise to the occasion."
But 17-year-old Ani Djaferian, a senior at Wausau East High School told the panel students will ignore abstinence instruction.
"Ms. Smith lectures her class filled with approximately 30 14-year-olds about the dangers of sexual intercourse ... meanwhile, John in the second row is sexting Jane by the window," Djaferian said. "Spending 40 minutes a day for a semester telling students not to have sex when clearly they are, or will regardless, will not do anything."