Just what should be done with sex education?

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 7:24 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Sex education took the stage during Wednesday's session of the Utah House of Representatives as lawmakers debated a bill that would emphasize a parent's role in the sexual education of their children by potentially removing the role of public schools altogether.

The bill, HB363, passed 45-28 in the house – 11 Republicans joined all 17 House Democrats in opposition – after a long debate that reached levels of discomfort befitting a class of teenagers discussing human sexuality. Representatives shied away from defining terms like "erotic behavior" and the degree to which, if at all, instruction on contraceptives and intercourse should be presented in the classroom.

The bill was essentially neutralized at the committee level, amended within a fine line of current law, but was amended on the House floor with stronger, more conservative language. In its current form, HB363 would replace Utah's abstinence-based education law with an abstinence-only law. Under the new guidelines, teachers would be able to answer questions presented by their students but would not be allowed to incorporate instruction on sexual intercourse, erotic behavior or the use of contraceptives as a means for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections into the curriculum. The bill also allows for school districts to discontinue sexual education courses entirely.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, voted against the bill and was vocal in his opposition during the House debate. He said he was disappointed in the results of the vote and said that the bill could potentially hurt the image of Utah government.

"I think that was a bill and that was a vote that added support for the idea that up at the legislature we're detached from reality," he said. "We're really giving into fear and our worst knee-jerk reactions."

King pointed to the testimony of bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, where instruction on contraception was described as teaching students "how to have sex and get away with it" as insight into the skewed view of sex that some representatives have and allow to inform their positions.

Since the vote, King said some of his colleagues who voted in favor of HB363 have approached him privately to express their opposition to the bill. He suggested that a fear of conservative challengers in the upcoming elections may have been a motivator in the bill's passage and applauded the courage of those Republican representatives who spoke out against it.

Before becoming law the bill would have to pass through the state Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 22-7. If, however, electoral pressure was a factor in the House, HB363 could face a greater challenge in the Senate where longer terms weaken the threat of an impending election.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that he was aware of the bill but that to this point it had not been addressed at length by Senate Republicans.

"I think it will have a vigorous debate," he said. "There's 29 senators and probably 29 opinions on it."

Current law permits instruction on, but not advocacy for, sexual intercourse and the use of contraceptives and requires parents to opt-in their children in districts where those topics are presented. Most districts contacted by The Deseret News did not have figures readily available, but Davis School District spokesperson Chris Williams said that over the years there's been "less than a handful," of students who have not participated in the district's sex education program.

Liz Zentner, Utah PTA President-elect said that she seldom hears from parents who are concerned with what their children are being taught in school. She suggested that legislators may be basing their decision on the complaints of a minority of Utahns.

"We oppose the bill officially," she said. "The health teachers do it in a very good way and stress abstinence. It's fine, it doesn't need to be changed."

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