Science-based sex education should be an important part of the public school curriculum. But a bill pending in the Legislature would require written consent from parents before students can receive sex ed instruction, creating a higher hurdle than the current opt-out policy. The change takes unwise risks with teenagers’ health and muddies the message to young people about responsible sexual behavior.
Florida requires comprehensive health education in public schools that emphasizes the benefits of abstinence and the consequences of teenage pregnancy. Beyond that, individual school districts decide what to teach kids about sex. The law says school officials should choose “appropriate curriculum which reflects local values and concerns.”
Districts can also offer “abstinence only” instruction, “abstinence plus” or comprehensive sex ed. Values should certainly play a critical role in how teenagers develop healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors, but an over-emphasis on abstinence leaves a knowledge vacuum about contraception.
SB 410, sponsored by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, wades into this policy pool — in an unhelpful way. It says schools must notify parents and request written consent before their kids can receive any instruction on “reproductive health or any sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS, and its symptoms, development, and treatment.” Raising the barrier to providing factual sex education is an overreach that undermines the goal of educating young people about their health and empowering them to make informed choices.
Teen pregnancy rates, both in Florida and nationally, are at historic lows, according to recent statistics. Experts point to two factors: fewer teens report being sexually active; and increased use of birth control among those who are. Both are desired outcomes that only happen through education.
The stubbornly high rate of sexually transmitted infections among teens shows how much more work there is to be done. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Americans age 15-24 accounted for almost half of the 26 million new STIs in 2018. These preventable infections pose grave health risks to young people. Robust public health policies and education initiatives need to meet teens where they are, not in an idealized, nonexistent scenario where every young person waits until marriage to have sex. But that’s where Florida’s sex ed philosophy seems to be stuck.
There is an echo here of the COVID-19 public health effort. We’re all safer when everyone wears masks, practices social distancing and washes their hands regularly. Even if someone who catches the coronavirus suffers no major health problems, the person they give it to might. So prevention protects us all. Similarly, a generation of teenagers who understand the benefits of abstinence and the effective use of contraceptives will keep more of their peers safe — and they can become ambassadors for healthy sexual development.
Preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among young people is a never-ending effort that requires comprehensive and candid education. State legislation that would require parents to opt their children into receiving this critical information would be a public health setback and a disservice to countless kids.
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