Sexual abstinence bills generate controversy
Capital News Service
Friday, March 5, 2004
LANSING — Let’s talk about sexual abstinence — that’s the message some lawmakers say schoolteachers don’t emphasize enough.
So Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, and Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood have introduced two bills that would further mandate that teachers stress the importance of abstinence.
“There’s too many kids having kids — experimenting with premarital sex. There’s too many kids contracting sexually transmitted diseases at a young age,” Kuipers said. “Young people can choose not to engage in these behaviors.
“It’s important to us as a state to avoid all of those scenarios and to promote an abstinence lifestyle.”
Rep. Scott Hummel, R-DeWitt, and Rep. John Stahl, R-North Branch, have introduced identical bills in the House.
But the state Board of Education and the Michigan Parent Teacher Student Association (MPTSA) say students already are learning enough about abstinence and called the proposal unnecessary.
“A lot of this material already is in law,” said Kathleen Straus, president of the state board. “We don’t need another law.”
For example, the board has a “Policy to Promote Health and Prevent Disease and Pregnancy” in place to help local districts design sexual health education programs, Straus said.
“It’s kind of like don’t fix it if it’s not broke,” said Barb Flis, a MPTSA health and welfare consultant. “It’s a very delicate topic. You can’t make people have open and honest dialogue.”
Michigan has one of lowest teen birth rates in the country for girls aged 15 to 19, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy. In 2002, an average of 35 babies were born to every 1,000 teenage girls in the state.
But with a growing number of teenagers contracting sexually transmitted diseases nationwide, some lawmakers want more classroom discussion about abstinence.
“Part of what the abstinence instruction does is teach kids that it’s OK to say no, even if society says it’s cool,” Kuipers said.
Another part of the legislation would require a health advisory board in every district so that community residents can have a say in the sexual health education curriculum. Some such boards already exist, but the sponsors want every district to have one with parents making up half the members.
“We think parents ought to have a say in the type of curriculum,” Kuipers said. “If we didn’t have that, it would be very easy for schools to just make a committee comprised of teachers and administrators.
“They wouldn’t make an effort to go out into the broader community.”
If schools do not comply, they could lose 5 percent of their state aid.
One sponsor expressed reservations about taking away money from schools as a penalty.
“I support the intent of the legislation. I’m a little concerned about the penalty provision,” said Sen. Alan Sanborn, R-Richmond. “In these tough economic times, that loss in funding could be damaging.”
But because the board would be made up of volunteers, it could be difficult to maintain the objectives and goals for the area’s sexual health education program over a period of years, a critic of the proposal said.
“These are not paid folks,” said Sen. Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit. “These people come and go.”
The legislation also would prohibit parents on a board from working for that district, something Clark-Coleman said would discriminate against teachers with children in that district.
And Straus said, “This is also ironic. These folks always talk about local control and how important it is, but they are taking away local control.”
Another component of the legislation calls for teaching students about adoption procedures. But opponents such as Straus say that if adoption is taught, then abortion should be included in classroom discussions.
Some lawmakers described the proposal as a continuation of discussion parents should have with their children.
The bills were referred to education committees and despite recent hearings, remain there.
“I just think as far as pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, there’s one thing you can do that’s 100-percent safe proof for unwanted pregnancy and that’s abstinence from sex,” said Rep. David Palsrok, R-Manistee, a co-sponsor. “I think it’s just another way for kids to hear this and hopefully they’re hearing this at home and from their friends.”
While all sides agree abstinence is the best method of safeguarding teenagers, some say it’s unrealistic to expect all children to follow that standard.
Clark-Coleman said sexual health education programs have been perfected as much as possible, but that classroom discussion only can go so far.
“In an ideal world, we could just teach abstinence, but this is not an ideal world,” Clark-Coleman said. “We have to be realistic and understand that no matter how much we preach about abstinence, some kids are not going to do that and we need to teach them.”
Copyright 2004, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism