Utahns split over teaching students about birth control

Published January 27, 2010 10:30 pm
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Utahns are evenly divided on whether schools should be required to teach students about contraception, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune poll.

The results come as Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, prepares to run a bill that would require school districts to teach students about contraceptives. Urquhart said the poll results don't surprise him, but he hopes that once people understand the details of his bill, they'll be more supportive.

"This is a very scary topic for a lot of people," Urquhart said. "People I talk with initially have a strong reaction one way or another but if we can talk about the particulars of the bill, they almost universally approve of it."

Now, state law allows, but doesn't require, educators to teach students about contraceptives, and it prohibits "advocacy or encouragement" of their use. That has resulted in some educators avoiding the topic out of fear of accidentally crossing the line. Urquhart's bill, still in draft form, would remove that prohibition and instead require teachers to talk about the limitations and benefits of contraceptives and the importance of parental guidance in such matters.

It would also require the State Board of Education to select instructional materials about contraception for districts to use. Parents would still be allowed to opt their children out of the lesson. Urquhart said he would also likely allow districts to opt out if they don't want to teach about contraception.

The bill would still prohibit advocacy of homosexuality, advocacy of sexual activity outside marriage, instruction in the intricacies of intercourse and explicit demonstrations of contraceptive devices.

Urquhart said the change is needed.

"Few things that our youth do can have more of a profound impact on their lives than sex," Urquhart said. "We're seeing that in the numbers of teenage pregnancies and infection rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Education can improve behavior in all aspects of life, including sex."

But not everyone is sold on the idea.

"I don't really think it's something that needs to be taught in school," said Steven Weber, 49, a supervisor at a manufacturing plant in Roy. "I think it's something that needs to be taught at home."

And while 73 percent of non-Mormons polled said teachers should be required to include contraception in their lessons, only 29 percent of Mormons agreed.

Gayle Ruzicka, leader of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said she would expect people of many faiths to have similar feelings.

"It is a religion that really pushes parental involvement," Ruzicka said. "Those parents that realize it's their responsibility, not the school's responsibility are going to say, 'Schools, stay out of the lives of my children when it comes to these very personal things.'"

Ruzicka said Wednesday she hadn't yet read Urquhart's bill but would oppose removing the prohibition against teachers advocating the use of contraceptives and would oppose requiring teachers to include contraceptives in their instruction.

"When you teach them about sex, that just encourages sexual activity," Ruzicka said. She said the current law should remain in place.

Melissa Bird, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Council (PPAC), however, said the results of the poll are surprising. PPAC, which worked with Urquhart and the state PTA to create the bill, conducted its own poll through Dan Jones and Associates in September. In that poll, PPAC asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed that "comprehensive sex education will likely reduce the number of unintended teen pregnancies." Sixty-seven percent of those polled in the PPAC survey agreed.

"We're not talking about not including information about abstinence," Bird said. "Abstinence is obviously the surefire way to prevent a pregnancy or STD. What we're talking about is making sure parents and teens have the best, most updated information so they can make decisions to keep themselves safe."

Patti Gardner, 59, who owns and manages rental property in Ogden, said she would like to see the bill pass. Gardner said she had a child when she was 18, even though she thought it could never happen to her.

"It's very hard to talk to a child, but it's necessary," Gardner said. "We're not getting the message out. [Educators] have the correct information. They have the statistics. [Students] need to be educated."



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