SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers moved a step closer Wednesday to making human sexuality instruction in Utah public schools abstinence-only or nothing at all.
After long and sometimes uncomfortable debate, the House passed an amended version of HB363. It now moves to the Senate. One amendment restricts teaching about sexual intercourse and erotic behavior and prohibits the advocacy of sex outside marriage, contraceptives and homosexuality.
Parents should be the ones who teach their children about sex, said Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden.
"I am not comfortable turning these sensitive subjects over to somebody else," he said. "Why would you ask somebody to do something you could do for yourself?"
The measure, which passed 45-28, also included an amendment requiring local school districts that choose to develop abstinence-only curriculum do it in consultation with parents.
Classroom instruction would stress the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as the only sure methods of preventing certain communicable diseases, according to the bill.
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.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, a father of four daughters, questions whether parents actually teach their children about sex.
"We've all done that, right? Really?" he said. "In truth, few of us are up to the task of teaching our kids about sex."
The bill, King said, deprives the public schools of teaching things parents don't want or know how to teach their children.
School districts currently set their own standards for human sexuality instruction, but local school board policy may not exceed what is allowed under state law.
Four school districts offer abstinence-only curriculum: Canyons, Jordan, Nebo and Provo. State law allows abstinence-based instruction. "Teachers are required to present a strong abstinence message, but the law allows instruction in areas of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases," according to the Utah State Office of Education website.
The policy requires parents to sign "opt in" permission slips allowing their child's participation. Utah is one of three states with that requirement.
Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Salt Lake, wondered what an abstinence-only curriculum sounds like. "If you're talking about abstinence, what do you talk about?" he said.
Wright said there's plenty to talk about.
Rather than talking about "how to have sex and how to get away with it," teaching could focus on friendship, dating and love. It could address the downside of sex outside marriage such as sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, he said. The largest indicator of poverty is single-parent families, he said.
"Why don't we just be honest with our children and tell them right up front that sex outside of marriage is devastating. There is no evidence that it is nothing else," he said.
Wright said teachers would still be able to answer questions from students who want more information as long as the exchange stays within the bounds of state law. But, he said, he hopes they would do it outside class.
“What I would not want to happen is that one student in 30 asks some pretty promiscuous questions and the teacher is forced to respond in front of the 29 other students,” he said.
The debate took an uneasy turn when Rep. Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake, asked a question of the sponsor of the amendment prohibiting advocacy of certain behaviors.
"Could you describe erotic behavior for me please?" she asked Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.
Ivory said he'd leave that to Seelig since she has run bills on the subject.
"I think that gets to my point. Erotic behavior is subjective," she said. "Some people would consider applying lip gloss erotic behavior. In turn, what would the advocacy of that be?"
Seelig said it's unfair to teachers, parents, and students when there is no clear line of what can or cannot be discussed.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he hopes advocates of abstinence-only don't ignore that the state has a problem with teen pregnancy.
"I hope as we make this decision we realize that it's not so simple as to say, 'Abstinence-only: We hope that fairy dust has been sprinkled and teen pregnancy is no longer a problem.'"
Contributing: Ladd Brubaker