SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of lawmakers overwhelmingly voted down a bill Tuesday that would have implemented a comprehensive sex education program in Utah schools.
Most legislators opposed to the idea said the responsibility of providing comprehensive sex education lies with parents, not schools. But the bill's sponsor, Salt Lake City Democrat Rep. Brian King, said parents should be given the option to opt their child into comprehensive programs at school if they want to.
"Right now as I sit before you, Utah law prevents me as a parent from being able to obtain comprehensive sex education from individuals who have been trained to teach it and have the knowledge to teach it effectively," King said. "We ought to be giving parents in the state of Utah that option and that ability that they don't have right now."
King cited rising rates of sexually transmitted infections in Utah, especially in the past 10 years for people ages 15 to 29. And while abortion rates have gone down, young people still need guidance about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, as well as sexually transmitted illnesses, he said.
HB246 defines comprehensive human sexuality education as including "human reproduction, reproductive anatomy, and reproductive physiology; all methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS," among other illnesses.
The bill deletes language that emphasizes "the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as methods for preventing certain communicable diseases."
Instead, the bill lists sexual abstinence, delaying sexual initiation, reducing the frequency of intercourse and number of partners, and the use of contraceptives as information "shown to be effective in changing behaviors that contribute to early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases."
The bill also states that the program would "encourage parental or guardian involvement and family communication," and would require parents to opt their children into the program before they participate.
But some members of the public worried that giving students more information on human sexuality could increase sexual activity among young people.
"Unfortunately, too many of our youth are introduced to sexuality prematurely, (leading to) significantly greater curiosity that often leads to age-inappropriate and escalating behaviors," said Jeremy Boberg, CEO of Utah Addiction Centers. "Inappropriate sexual-related behaviors come from this."
Jessica Sanders, a family planning researcher at the University of Utah, said she favored the bill because it would provide waivers for family planning services for women at or below the poverty level in Utah. King said that while the state would have to spend about $600,000 on providing the waivers, Utah would be eligible for more than $4.5 million in federal assistance funds.
"As a parent, I absolutely support this bill," Sanders said. "We know that getting family planning services to these women can reduce the number of unintended pregnancies."
A UtahPolicy poll of 625 adult Utahns released last week showed that 64 percent of respondents favor comprehensive sex education. Twenty-five percent said they support abstinence-only, and the remaining 11 percent said they didn't know or favored some other kind of program.
The poll also showed that among Republicans, half want abstinence-only education, and 31 percent support comprehensive sex education.
Lawmakers ultimately decided Tuesday to leave it to parents. The bill failed in a 2-11 vote.
"This is a very, very serious discussion," said Rep. Mike Neol, R-Kanab. "And it gets into the very personal things of family responsibility of parents, responsibility of individuals."
The committee also adjourned without voting on a bill that would remove child sexual abuse prevention as a default subject of health instruction. That curriculum is currently being developed following 2014 legislation calling for enhanced safety and prevention education.
HB335 proposes requiring parents to opt their children into child abuse prevention curriculum, rather than current policy that requires an opt out from parents if they don't want their child to participate.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said the intent of his bill is to encourage more parents to be involved and aware of the content of human sexuality curriculum.
"The intent of this bill is to allow an appropriate, healthy, transparent discussion on what that education curriculum is going to be," Stratton said.
But other legislators worried the proposal would end up excluding more children from guidance in dealing with inappropriate treatment from adults and other students.
"We ought to do whatever we can to make sure that we are reaching the most students that we can," said Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane. "Will this opt in significantly reduce our reach? My common sense tells me that it will."
The bill also saw opposition from Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who noted that in the past four years, 46 percent of child abuse cases involved in-home offenders, and 33 percent of offenders were parent figures.
"I cannot support legislation that would limit the access of our most vulnerable citizens to information that could save them from criminal abuse," Gill said in a prepared statement.
HB335 still resides in the House Education Committee and could be voted on before the Legislature adjourns on March 10.