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Sex ed and role of government

Published March 17, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The most important idea to understand about lasting freedom is that it requires us to be our better selves. Most of my arguments with libertarians are over this point. Freedom is not simply "individual liberty" or "economic freedom." Those qualities are important components of freedom, but incomplete. A complete definition is that freedom is the sum of liberty and virtue.

A second important point to understand about lasting freedom is that government should be limited. But not in the way many people understand the meaning of "limited government." To help human beings be our better selves, we surround ourselves with social encouragements: family, friends, religion, community groups, philanthropic and civic groups, educational opportunities, etc.

We also create governments. For instance, becoming our better selves requires people living in community to create rules about how we're going to get along. This is the reason we have a system of justice in America. If we didn't care about becoming our better selves, in the name of lasting freedom, we'd simply revert to the Wild West rule of law – every man for himself.

In this context, government has a limited role to play in helping us preserve our lasting freedom. That's the meaning of limited government. That's the proper role of government. Government has a limited role in helping us become our better selves. Many legal scholars refer to this role as "educative" – meaning the law not only restrains, it educates.

So how does sex education in public schools (i.e., government schools) fit into this broader theory of freedom?

Simple: A society interested in lasting freedom requires human beings to responsibly procreate and avoid irresponsible choices that burden society. Responsible procreation, as we've discovered over millennia, happens within the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman.

In other words, responsible sex education in our public schools must be set in the context of no sexual relations outside of the bonds of marriage. And that is the point of HB 363.

Yes, premarital sex is a reality. So, too, are sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies even when contraception is at hand — quite literally meaning that the effective mitigation of these ill consequences from premarital sex is about the "choice" youth make, not about the "means" whereby they have sex after they've made the choice. Comprehensive sex education is all about the means. Abstinence-only sex education is all about the choice.

This is the point where our understanding of the proper role of government becomes relevant. Sex education in our public schools should address the choice, not the means. Furthermore, it should prioritize helping us to become our better selves, not our selfish selves. Comprehensive sex education is all about our selfish selves (i.e., attempting to mitigate the consequences of poor choices). Abstinence-only sex education is all about our better selves (i.e., attempting to influence the choices youth make).

We don't teach youth how to drink liquor, not even responsibly. Nor do we teach youth how to consume narcotics, not even responsibly. We tell them not to. Teaching youth to have "safe sex" is like teaching youth to "drink responsibly." Can people have "safe sex"? Yes. Can people "drink responsibly"? Yes. But in both cases we don't teach youth to do either. We tell them don't do it at all.

Abstinence-only sex education, as embodied in HB 363, is the only just, rational and consistent way to influence the choices of youth in public schools about proper and healthy sexual relations. It is the only justifiable instruction in such matters if lasting freedom is an important consideration to us.

Paul T. Mero is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank based in Salt Lake City.