The fourth time was the charm for comprehensive sex education Tuesday—or at least a beginning. After three postponements, the House Health Committee finally released—without taking a position for or against—legislation that would add information about contraception to the currently mandated "abstinence until marriage" curriculum in North Carolina's public schools.
While the latest delay last week was blamed on unrelated budget talks, it's also true that members of the committee have been bombarded with e-mails from, first, the supporters of H-879, the "Modified School Health Education Act," and then in reaction last week, its opponents.
The bill, which now moves to the House Education Committee, would require instruction in grades 7 and 8 and in one additional year during high school about contraception methods and how well or poorly they work; sexually transmitted diseases, how to treat them and how to avoid getting them in the first place (including, but not limited to, abstaining from sex); sexual abuse and how to avoid it; and HIV/AIDS as a personal as well as a public health issue.
Also included in H-879 and a companion Senate bill (S-1182) is an "opt-out" provision for parents who don't want their children exposed to such topics.
Pro-choice groups like NARAL Pro-Choice N.C. and Planned Parenthood have been pushing the measure, which they term "abstinence-based," since the beginning of the current legislative term. But they've ramped up their efforts since the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in mid-April that upheld a ban on the "dilation and extraction" method of abortion—a ruling that in effect invited state legislatures to devise other methods of limiting abortion rights.
Better information about sex for students who are active anyway would reduce the need for abortions, supporters say.
According to the state chapter of NARAL, 63 percent of North Carolina's high school seniors report having had sexual intercourse at least once. North Carolina has the ninth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, and the highest among Hispanic teens, it says.
And parents want their children to have medically accurate information about sex, contraception and STDs, says Planned Parenthood, citing polls nationally and in the state showing more than 90 percent support for comprehensive sex education. But there's a "giant chasm," says Paige Johnson, public affairs director for the group's central North Carolina chapter, between what parents want and the state's policymakers, who've been listening mainly to conservative activists touting the virtues of abstinence.
And indeed, in the last week, the conservative backlash against H-879 has been, as one legislator put it privately, "unbelievable." The N.C. Family Policy Council charged, in a position paper, that the bills "would eliminate abstinence until marriage as the primary focus" of instruction and "replace it with requirements that would promote condoms and contraceptives." Moreover, the group complained, the bill would "affirm 'alternative' sexual activity" by eliminating the requirement that teachers emphasize "a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage" as the best way to avoid STDs.
"Provisions in these bills," Steve Noble, chair of the Christian activist group Called2Action, wrote in an e-mail to his flock, "will silence any bias against sexual orientation or gender identity regardless of the fact that sexual deviancy results in radically increased levels of STDs, including HIV/AIDS.
"These bills don't just mention homosexuality, bisexuality, transgendered and cross-dressing behaviors ... they actually AFFIRM THEM," Noble's message declared.
Attached to it was a list of House Health Committee members' e-mail addresses.
Actually, neither H-879 nor S-1182 mentions homosexuality, bisexuality or any specific "behaviors" at all. The bills do, however, say that all sex-ed instruction should be "appropriate for ... [and] not reflect or promote bias against any person on the basis of sex, ethnic group identification, race, national origin, religion, color, sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical disability."
The bills also require that sex-ed lessons "shall teach" that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only certain way to prevent unintended pregnancy, and that abstinence from all sexual activity is the only way to be sure you won't get an STD.
But they also call for instruction, starting in grade 7, "about the effectiveness and safety of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods in preventing pregnancy," including emergency contraception, or "day-after pills."
This language is the basis for a hot dispute between the backers of comprehensive sex-ed and the abstinence-only side. The former want students taught that condoms, if properly used, are highly effective. The latter insist that the failure rates of condoms be emphasized "in light of actual use among adolescent populations," as the Family Policy Council put it. In other words, that kids who don't know how to use a condom—perhaps for lack of any instruction about them—have higher failure rates than experienced adults.
H-879 has 23 co-sponsors, but faces an uphill road to enactment, its supporters acknowledge. It's now ticketed for delivery to the House Education Committee, not the House floor. And if the House does finally approve it, the ordinarily more conservative Senate awaits.
Triangle co-sponsors included Reps. Linda Coleman, Grier Martin, Deborah Ross and Jennifer Weiss, all Wake Democrats; Verla Insko, D-Orange; and Paul Luebke, D-Durham.
The bill's chances were bolstered by a recent, federally funded study of abstinence-only sex-ed programs. It found that students taking such courses were no less likely to have had sex, nor to have had fewer sexual partners once active, than a control group of students who'd never taken them. The report, "Impacts of Four Title V Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs," was issued in April by Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
Since 1996, federal funds have supported abstinence-only programs under a law modeled after the one enacted in North Carolina the year before. According to Planned Parenthood, 115 school districts in North Carolina received aid under the program in 2005 totaling some $1.7 million. That aid would be jeopardized should H-879 become law, its opponents believe.