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Legislation would change the way sex ed is taught in Pennsylvania

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By Mike Wereschagin and Michael Aubele,
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
 

Two bills in the Legislature, crafted with the help of Planned Parenthood, would change the way that sex education is taught in the state's public schools.

One would require public schools to notify parents if the sex-education curriculum teaches only abstinence. Parental notification is required if schools teach about contraception.

Another bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Chelsa Wagner of Beechview, would require public schools to teach students how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It requires that teachers note abstinence is the only sure way to prevent both.

Those in favor of broader sex education point to studies showing abstinence-only education doesn't prevent teenage sex, so youths should learn ways to protect themselves.

An eight-year Department of Health and Human Services study of four federally funded abstinence-only programs, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and released in 2007, found no difference in sexual activity or contraceptive use between students enrolled in the programs and those who weren't. President Obama's proposed 2010 budget includes no money for abstinence-only programs.

Abstinence-only supporters say the $50 million spent each year since 1997 goes to more than 700 programs, and they maintain many of those programs work.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate one-quarter of sexually active adolescents have sexually transmitted diseases.

Teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases cost Pennsylvania about $380 million a year in social services and health care, said state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne, sponsor of the parental notification bill.

"For a person to be celibate until marriage is highly unlikely. The moment will come when they're going to engage in some form of sex. When that moment comes, they will know the dangers involved and how to protect themselves," Pashinski said about his support for broader sex-education programs. "I'm taking a very realistic approach to all this. I'm coming from the standpoint of being a father and a grandfather."

"Parents are under the assumption that their kids are getting sex education," said Sue Steele, vice president for education with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania.

Steele was on a city schools committee that prompted the district to abandon abstinence-only for broader sex education. Part of the problem, she said, was a lack of textbooks teaching anything other than abstinence.

"There are two major companies that do printing of textbooks, and they're both in Texas," she said. A study by two Texas State University professors found 94 percent of schools there teach abstinence-only, and the state Legislature and board of education require school districts to emphasize abstinence. Pennsylvania law requires the same emphasis.

About 6 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 in Texas got pregnant in 2006, according to the CDC. Pennsylvania's teen pregnancy rate that year of 3 percent was lower than all but 11 states. The teen pregnancy rate in Pennsylvania, and across the country, fell by more than one-third during the previous 15 years, according to the CDC.

Local reaction

Marion Boggs of Harrison said that while there were several reasons why she chose to send her children to a faith-based school, one of them was the confidence that abstinence would be promoted as part of its sex education program.

"In this day and age, everything but abstinence is dangerous," Boggs said. She feels the best way to protect her son's and daughter's future is to promote abstinence until marriage. "I'm thankful that's what they're teaching."

Boggs sends her 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to Evangel Heights Christian Academy in Buffalo Township.

Boggs works with Tri-City Life Center, a faith-based organization in Lower Burrell that offers support to young pregnant women.

Val Yajko, who coordinates Tri-City Life Center's teen abstinence program, argued that efforts to promote safe sex "haven't been working." Sexually transmitted diseases are an epidemic, she said, and the best way to slow the process is by promoting abstinence.

Yajko said abstinence is not only a better choice for teens to stay physically healthy, it's better for them emotionally.

"It's not said enough how much their self-worth is affected," she said about youth who are sexually active.

Mary Anne Poutous, director of community education for Adagio Health System, said her organization promotes comprehensive sex education — that includes teaching youth about safe sex.

Poutous said that, as a parent, "I would like my daughter to be taught that abstinence is the only 100 percent way to avoid pregnancy, HIV and STDs. However, if she chooses to make a decision I may not agree with, she should have all of the necessary facts to keep herself safe.

Poutous of Bethel Park said she'd like for her daughter "to know everything in regard to pregnancy, preventing HIV and STDs and using a condom."

Poutous added that she believes children should be taught how to make wise decisions in the company of their peers.

Adagio is based in Pittsburgh but has a medical office in Lower Burrell. Adagio offers a variety of medical services, including pregnancy and disease prevention.

As for public schools in the Alle-Kiski Valley, officials from a number of districts declined to comment on the proposed legislation.

Spokesmen for Armstrong and South Butler County school districts said the curriculum in their schools approaches sex education from an abstinence perspective.

Todd O'Shell, South Butler spokesman, said the "forms of protection are discussed" during the lessons.

 

 
 


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