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Sex ed bill amended, impact unclear among Utah lawmakers

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 8:42 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would have banished all talk of contraception from public schools was amended and passed by a House committee Thursday, leaving some scratching their heads over what distinguishes the bill from law currently on the books.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, presented HB363 to the House Education Committee with his young granddaughter at his side.

"She represents the innocence of those we are really talking about," Wright said. "This is not an important part of our curriculum. … It is just basically something out there that takes away from the character in our schools and takes away from the character of our students."

Under Wright's bill, districts would be able to opt out entirely from teaching human sexuality. Currently, districts are required to teach it as part of the core health curriculum for a few days in junior high and a few days in high school. Under the proposal, districts that choose to teach human sexuality would be required to teach an abstinence only curriculum.

"I think we are intellectually dishonest when we teach pregnancy prevention in our classes and do not teach the only sure pregnancy prevention," Wright said.

While schools are currently required to only advocate abstinence, teachers are still allowed to discuss contraception, so long as they don't advocate for it.

Some committee and audience members were concerned the bill would actually prohibit districts from adequately teaching abstinence, since it would prohibit all discussion of contraception.

"You must have discussion about those sexual activities and what happens as a result of them in order to talk about abstinence," Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake,  said.

An amendment offered by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, that was passed by the committee changed Wright's proposal so it more closely resembles current Utah law. Instead of prohibiting all discussion of contraception, the amended version ensures that human sexuality instruction "may not include instruction in the advocacy or use of contraceptive methods or devices."

After the meeting, Wright said he wasn't sure how contraceptives would be addressed in the classroom under the amendment.

The Utah Parent Teacher Association opposed Wright's bill, saying the current law is sufficient, and ideals have to be balanced with realities.

Liz Zentner president elect, said the Utah PTA represents the state's parents who are largely conservative, and the organization wants to keep abstinence education at the heart of sexual education. But they also want accurate information about contraceptives available.

"We're parents in Utah and we definitely belong to that culture," she said. Even so, "It's important for kids who are being bombarded by the media and their friends … to be able to get some information."

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, told the committee that children should be encouraged to be abstinent, and if they've already had sex, they should be encouraged to be abstinent again.

"We know that they're not animals," she said. "They can say no."

Cougar Hall, assistant professor and school health adviser at Brigham Young University told the committee that Utah current law is very conservative. He said he supports abstinence education 100 percent, but there needs to be some information out there for students at risk.

"It is immoral to withhold life-saving information from segments of our population because it doesn't fit our value system," Hall said.

Wright said he began looking into changing the law after he saw materials developed by Planned Parenthood being used as part of maturation programs at some schools in the state. He also disagreed with a slideshow that the State Office of Education developed about contraception because it showed pictures and brands of condoms.

"I'm just trying to correct a system so we don't have failures in the future," he said, holding up a print of the slide show. "It takes time and resources to keep this. … I think we're wasting our money and time doing it."

Ruzicka and others said teaching about contraception, even if it's not advocated, sends a double message.

"There's no such thing as safe sex," she said, "especially when you talk about the heart."

The amended bill passed out of the committee 8-7. It now moves to the House floor.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer

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