Whose expected standard? A look at North Carolina’s sex ed legislation

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Health education in schools tends to be a highly controversial topic, given the hot buttons of orientation, sexual activity, and abortion. North Carolina’s Senate Bill 132, ratified on July 9 and passed on to the governor to be signed on July 10, is proving to be a textbook example of such a controversy.

SB 132 (short title: Health Curriculum/Preterm Birth) is meant to be an “augmentation” of the current reproductive health curriculum, rather than a replacement, according to co-sponsor Senator Warren Daniel (R-NC).

“We already have a fairly comprehensive reproductive health curriculum in the schools,” he said, according to WCCB Charlotte. “This really just augments that slightly by having a discussion that talks about the future risk associated with abortion, drug use, alcohol use and inadequate prenatal care.”

A look at the bill itself shows a strong focus on abstinence; of its nine parts, five out of nine mention or imply abstaining from sex until marriage and the reasons why people should. The text of the bill reads:

Each local school administrative unit shall provide a reproductive health and safety education program commencing in the seventh grade that includes the following instruction:

a. Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children. […]

e. Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. […]

i. Teaches about the preventable causes of preterm birth in subsequent pregnancies, including induced abortion, smoking, alcohol consumption, the use of illicit drugs, and inadequate prenatal care. 

Though striving to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy, inadequate prenatal care, and premature birth is certainly commendable, as is decreasing the rate of newly acquired STDs—all of which fall under the umbrella of “health” — part A, “Abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for schoolchildren,” begs a question.

Whose standard? 

Many adults agree that schoolchildren of any age, including teenagers, should not be engaging in sexual activity. However, research shows that most American adults have had sex outside of marriage; according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a private think tank with a focus on sexuality, an analysis of 38,000 people showed that 95% had had sex before marriage.

A co-author of the study, Lawrence Finer, stated “The data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage, which calls into question the federal government’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for 12- to 29-year-olds.”

The standards of SB 132’s sponsors are also showing in part E; the declaration that “a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS” seems somewhat out of place in a document subtitled “Preterm Birth.”

It’s certainly true that couples in monogamous, faithful relationships are the least likely to contract STDs, but the specification of heterosexual couples as the “best” way of avoiding such stands out, as does the mention of “the context of marriage.”

If two people in a monogamous, faithful relationship are free of STDs, their chances of catching one are the same no matter what the gender configuration. If STDs are a concern, a lesbian couple may have the lowest chance of one infecting the other, depending on which specific condition is in question.

Though marriage has many benefits, it is erroneous to hold up STD protection as one, as well; being legally married is no protection against infidelity or disease.

Part I also has a troublesome note: learning about the “preventable causes of preterm birth,” especially before beginning a pregnancy, is in fact one of the best ways to prevent it. However, while “smoking, alcohol consumption, the use of illicit drugs, and inadequate prenatal care” are all risk factors, induced abortion is not.

Another sponsor of SB 132, Republican Senator Shirley Randleman, told WCCB News that “Preterm birth has reached epidemic proportions in North Carolina. SB 132 addresses a long overdue need to ensure that young women of childbearing age will be informed of all potential risk for preterm birth, including abortion.”

An assistant for Randleman referred a fact-checker at WCCB to the March of Dimes, which showed that for the most part, the premature birth rate in North Carolina  has been slowly declining since 2006. The organization also lists factors contributing to premature births as induced labor, being uninsured, and previous c-sections, but does not consider abortion to be one.

A spokesperson for the organization also told WCCB that the March of Dimes follows the guidance of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which “based on current evidence… does not consider a prior abortion or abortions to be a risk factor for premature birth.”

What public schools are allowed to teach their students varies wildly from state to state; according to Amplify, “Each NC school district is responsible for adopting a policy that includes information about both abstinence and contraception… an overwhelming 91.8% of North Carolina parents want the more detailed education, [but]school systems seem to operate in fear of a very vocal minority that opposes effective sexuality education.”

Representative Marvin Lucas (D-NC) told the FayObserver that he is in favor of the inclusion of abstinence in the curriculum, but doesn’t agree with including the information about abortion.

“We are far beyond what we ought to be doing,” he said. “It is the parent’s responsibility to teach that kind of concept. Why push personal beliefs on public schools?”

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Just another multi-disciplinary writer and bundle of contradictions trying to figure out how to get the most out of life, and make a living while I’m at it.

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