Utah's Abstinence-Only Sex Education Bill is Dangerous for Teens

Talking about sex may become a taboo subject in Utah’s public schools as a result of new legislation passed by the Utah state legislature last week.

The proposed legislation, HB 363, which has yet to be signed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, defines sex education in Utah as abstinence-only and bans any instruction or discussion of “the intricacies of intercourse,” homosexuality, contraceptive methods, and sexual activity outside of marriage. Governor Herbert, who has yet to take a public stance on the issue, should veto this bill because it will harm Utah's teens and lead to an increase in teen pregnancies and STDs.

This bill magnifies the naiveté of Utah’s legislature concerning teenage behavior. A CDC report from 2009 showed that 46% of high school students in the U.S. had engaged in sexual intercourse before, and a large number of them do not consistently use contraception. In Utah, the teen pregnancy rate (as of 2009) stands at 30.7 births per 1,000 teenage girls aged 15-19 years old. Teen pregnancy is a real problem in Utah, and ignoring it will not make it go away.  

While it is desirable that more control should be given to parents over what their child is taught in regards to sexual education, the bill assumes that parents even talk to their children about sex. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Wright said that he believes that sex education should take place in the home, not the classroom. But as Sen. Ross Romero explained in his opposition to Utah’s new legislation, “We’ve been discussing this [issue] as though every child has the benefit of two loving parents who are ready to have a conversation. This is not the case. There are kids in our community that do not have that luxury.” The legislators that passed this bill have had a false perception that all parents are responsible enough to talk to their kids about sex. The reality is that parents are often afraid of giving “the talk,” and when or if it comes, it is usually too late. Without proper instruction on sex and contraceptive use, pregnancies, and STDs among teens in Utah are sure to rise.

What is also apparent from this bill is how out of touch the Utah state legislature is with its voters. According to a recent Brigham Young University poll, 58% of Utah residents agree that public schools should teach about the use of contraceptives, and only 30% disagree.

Utah voters’ public opinion demonstrates that there is no need to change existing law. The current law in Utah about sex education permits instruction about, but not advocacy for, contraceptives and sexual intercourse, but requires parents to give permission for their children to take the class. This current law completely respects parent preferences to give their children the sex education that they deem most appropriate, and it is unclear why the law should be changed. The new law would place all responsibility for preventing teen pregnancies and STDs on parents – a responsibility which will undoubtedly go unfulfilled in many families across the state.

In many places in the U.S., there is indeed a lack of discussion about abstinence. Many years ago in my high school health class, I remember spending less than one day on the subject of abstinence. It was as if teachers assumed that all 16-year-olds were having sex and there was nothing they could say or do to discourage it. However, it is clear that both extremes are dangerous. Assuming that all kids are having sex sets an undesirable norm for teens, but assuming that parents will talk openly and maturely to their kids about sex and contraception is flat out naïve.

Click here to sign a petition to Governor Herbert to veto the bill. So far it has gathered more than 39,000 signatures.

Photo Credit: Medill DC