Abstinence-only sex education bill passes Utah Legislature

Published: Tuesday, March 6 2012 8:14 p.m. MST

Planned Parenthood Action Council holds a rally in the Capitol Rotunda in support of Sen. Stephen Urquhart's bill that would revise Utah's sex education by giving parents choices of two classes -- one quite detailed, the other with less graphic info. Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives

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SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial bill that mandates an abstinence-only sex education curriculum for Utah public schools passed the Utah Senate with little debate on Tuesday.

The Senate followed the lead of the House in voting mostly along party lines for HB363, which defines sex education in Utah as abstinence-only and bans instruction in sexual intercourse, homosexuality, contraceptive methods and sexual activity outside of marriage.

The bill will now go before Gov. Gary Herbert for consideration. A representative of the governor's office would not say if the governor intends to sign the bill, noting that revisions during the legislative process means a final draft of the bill will need to be reviewed.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, sponsored the bill in response to what he viewed as inappropriate material being presented in classrooms, specifically materials produced by Planned Parenthood. Throughout the course of the legislative session he said that sex education should take place in the home and was pleased to see the bill pass in the Senate.

"I was happy that they were able to see these things and make the right decision," he said. "They didn't need me to tell them one way or another."

Unlike the long and sometimes awkward debate in the House, the Senate discussion on the bill was brief with most comments coming during the course of the vote. The bill was presented by Senate sponsor Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who did not yield to questions from her colleagues, saying "everyone knows where they are, I don't know that it's going to be beneficial for me to debate."

Still, several senators, mostly Democrats, took time to explain their votes.

In presenting the bill, Dayton said there has been an alarming increase in sexually transmitted infections nationwide in the 40 years since sex education first began being taught. She said that the bill will still allow biology to be taught in school but added that when contraceptives and sexual intercourse are presented to students, the conversation shifts from a clinical biological discussion to a sexual counseling discussion.

"This just clarifies we'll have an abstinence-only curriculum or a nothing curriculum," she said.

Current Utah law permits instruction about, but not advocacy for, contraceptives and sexual intercourse, but requires parents to give permission for their children to take the class. Multiple groups — such as the Utah Parent Teacher Association — spoke out against Wright's bill, saying it was an unnecessary change to current sex education curriculum and deprived students of information that could reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Opponents in both the House and Senate criticized the bill for being uncharacteristically "big government." They said the Legislature was taking a one-size-fits-all approach to defining morality and doing a disservice to parents and children by eliminating the choice for a more comprehensive education.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, described the House debate as "obnoxious" and before her vote Tuesday in the Senate Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, called the bill "disturbing."

"You just took away the power of parents by having the state of Utah dictate what students are going to be learning," she said.

Wright said that despite what a minority of opponents would have people believe, the bill will not be a major shift for most sex education classes. He said that in voting for the bill, legislators merely recognized that there were a few things that needed to be changed.

"A lot of our districts are already teaching abstinence," he said. "This will help us set a path in the future where our curriculum doesn't get hijacked."

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