Contraception and condoms were the subject of a heated debate at a legislative committee Thursday on a bill seeking to make sure Utah school children would not hear about such things in any school sexual-education course. House Bill 363 sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, argued that teaching contraception only encouraged immoral behavior, so his bill would allow for schools to teach abstinence-only or to opt out of teaching sexual education entirely. Wright said teaching sexuality wasn’t a priority in education. “This is not like all our students are going to die if they don’t learn promiscuous behavior,” Wright said.
After almost two hours of debate that included comments from 18 members of the public ranging from students and teachers to members of the conservative Eagle Forum, the House Education Committee eventually passed HB363 out favorably with an 8-7 vote. But committee member Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, amended the bill at the close of debate to strike out a controversial aspect of the bill that sought to forbid schools from even having “discussion” on such topics as sex and eroticism, homosexuality, contraception and sex outside of marriage.
Legislators worried if teachers couldn’t discuss certain subjects, even if asked, that meant English teachers wouldn’t be able to discuss Shakespeare or that history teachers might not be able to discuss King Henry the VIII separating from the Church of England to marry his mistress. Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Salt Lake City, worried that the bill would have a chilling effect on the dialogue between students and teachers. She worried it might prevent students from approaching teachers about complaints of rape and dating violence.
Ultimately, she argued, students depend on candid information.
“I’ve lived my life as an educator,” Moss said. “And kids thrive on having information.”
Wright insisted that legal review and meeting with legislative staff indicated that the use of the word “discussion” would only limit abstinence-only to courses on maturation and human sexuality in public education.
Wright insisted that some of the information about homosexuality, contraception and sex outside of marriage was not intended to be a subject teachers couldn’t discuss in other settings, simply not in sexual-education and physical-maturation classes.
“Let me say this, there is lots of needs, probably, in our communities for [comprehensive sexual education] information like this,” Wright said. “We’re not trying to deny the need for information, we need to change the venue where it’s presented. We don’t want to impede free speech, we don’t want to take away any rights.”
Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative grass-roots group the Eagle Forum, argued that schools would only want to teach students correct principles. She likened teaching sex-education alternatives like contraception to teaching school children to not use drugs, but if they can’t resist, teaching them that maybe certain drugs like pot are better than others.
“Just say no to sex outside of marriage,” Ruzicka said. “I think it’s a good message.”
But others disagreed, including Brigham Young University professor of sexuality Parley Hall. With 10 years experience in teaching maturation programs, mostly in elementary schools, Hall argued the issue was a public-health concern. He cited studies that Latina teen-pregnancy rates in the state were four times that of the rest of the population.
“It is immoral to withhold life-saving information to a segment of our population because it doesn’t meet our personal value system,” Hall said.
Logan Froerer, a West High student from Salt Lake City and nephew to Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, argued that so much information is available on the Internet but that good information is hard to come by, and teachers as responsible authority figures need to be involved in discussing sexuality with students.
“The world is moving toward a more open society. But the information is often out of context and without proper discussion,” Froerer said. “The way the youth are and the way the world works these days, we need those authority figures to be able to talk openly with us.”
The committee wrestled with the language of the bill before a final vote, with Powell successfully striking the language in the bill prohibiting “discussion” of the taboo topics of sexuality. Even then Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, worried that, if passed, the bill language could have unintended consequences, especially if legislators amend it on the floor to do some “wordsmithing” that would put tougher language against discussing certain subjects back in.
“If it’s on the floor, we won’t have input from the public,” Arent said. “This is a bill we need to carefully consider, and now is not the time to pass it out.”
Regardless, the bill did pass out of the committee as amended and will now move to the House floor for debate.
To find out who your legislator is to contact them about this bill, click here. For HB 363 bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright’s contact information, click here. For more updates from the 2012 Legislature, follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.