Comprehensive sex ed: how a popular and effective bill got lost at the Capitol

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With rates of sexually transmitted diseases increasing and teenage pregnancy up for the first time in 16 years, ensuring adequate sexual health information in middle and high schools in Minnesota would seem like a no-brainer. After all, 9 out of 10 Minnesota parents support a comprehensive approach to teaching teens about responsible sexuality, yet a bill to do just that has been offered each of the last eight years and failed.

The problem getting the bill passed? Opposition from fringe social conservative groups and the threat of a veto from Gov. Tim Pawlenty. And even more important: a reluctance by Minnesotans to speak publicly about sex and sexual health policy.

“I think that we have a majority of supporters among legislators,” said Lorie Alveshere, policy director of the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting. “They understand the issue and are supportive of this type of education for young people.”

But while that support exists, some legislators hesitate. “I really do believe that [sex education] gets politicized because of fear of the repercussion of opposing groups,” she added.

Those groups are the Minnesota Family Council and EdWatch. Both advocate an abstinence-only approach to sex education or no sex education at all. These organizations attack sex education with the fervor of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Their rhetoric says that sex education equals homosexuality, abortion and death.

The Minnesota Family Council, which lobbies legislators heavily on this issue, doesn’t blame the rise in STDs and teenage pregnancy on a lack of education; it blames the rise on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. “‘Facts’ based [comprehensive] sex education is a denial mechanism designed to hide the failure of a sexual revolution that swapped abstinence-based values for the more ‘enlightened’ partner of free sex. And now our kids are paying the price,” wrote Chuck Darrell, MFC’s communications director.

MFC president Tom Prichard went so far as to call comprehensive sex education “the vehicle for pushing a pro-abortion and pro-homosexual agenda in the schools and among our young people … Through the sexual revolution and the ‘anything goes’ mentality towards sex, there’s been a steady stream of suffering, disease, and death.”

EdWatch’s Julie Quist writes, “Comprehensive sex education is a family destroyer: outrageous, dangerous, and anti-parent.”

But advocates of comprehensive sex education see the parent as the key educator of their teens and in the bill currently being considered, parental involvement is a mandate.

“The bill has a component that requires school districts to involve parents at the local level to determine what and when to teach,” says Alveshere. “What is the right thing for our kids? Things like age, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, urban environments versus out-state ones, are relevant for successful education. The curriculum must be based on the population in order to be effective.”

But even though almost 90 percent of parents support the type of education outlined in the bill, and even though parents will have a key role in educating their kids, legislators still waffle when the Minnesota Family Council comes knocking. That’s why, Alveshere says, parents need to be vocal about sex and sexual health.

“The key when talking to legislators is to demonstrate the importance,” she said. “For instance, if you are a teacher or you are a parent who has had a kid in a really good program, be sure to say so. ‘I want you to know how good this was for my kid and for me.'”

Currently, the bill is in the Senate Education Omnibus bill and in the House it’s in the Finance Committee awaiting a hearing. Even though Pawlenty is likely to veto the bill, supporters can make their voices heard at the Capitol.

“Despite the science and overwhelming popular opinion, the issue causes some concern. Legislators have to have the political will to stand up for this,” Alveshere says. “It really comes down to political will.”

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