A bill clarifying what Utah teachers can say about contraception moves forward— but only after requiring talk on ‘the risks'

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, June 20, 2018 at the Utah Capitol.

A bill that stalled earlier this session that would clarify what teachers can say — and a little of what they can’t — about condoms and birth control pills was revived in committee Tuesday where it passed unanimously.

The measure, though a relatively mild proposal, was still tensely debated for more than an hour and comes after lawmakers have tried in previous years to have only chastity taught in all public classrooms. HB71 failed in a prior vote over concerns that it would change state law in a direction moving away from abstinence.

But it was only meant to clarify what that statute means, explained the sponsor Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, and provide more information for teachers.

“They are uncertain what’s permitted,” he said. “But I’m not trying to change what’s permitted.”

In Utah, it is mandated that sex ed be taught using abstinence-based lessons that promote chastity as the most effective way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and the only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy. Health instructors can briefly mention contraception, but there are no expectations that they will, and many don’t. And they cannot advocate for it.

Ward’s measure wouldn’t change that. But it would remove the gray area and expressly permit educators to talk with students about “the medical characteristics, effectiveness and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices.”

In an amendment that helped the bill pass in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, that will now include “the risks” with instructions that “stress the importance of” no sexual relationships before marriage and fidelity after.

“He’s made adequate changes,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who joked that as a former teacher her students once cringed when she used the word “condom.” She added: “It’s ridiculous that we can’t say the right words for things that exist.”

Parents will continue to be required to “opt in." And individual schools and districts could still choose to not provide instruction on the topic. The issue has come under review as the state Board of Education has overhauled its health education standards, which include discussions on sex, and included a unit for teachers to compare various contraceptive methods.

Ward’s bill does much the same, putting it in state code, and had support from several parent and health groups, including the Utah Public Health Association.

“We like the face that this clears up language for health educators,” added Sheri Mattle with the Utah PTA.

Others, though, suggested that the bill wasn’t necessary and that those discussions are best left to individual districts, which can decide how much their teachers say about contraception anyway and provide training.

“Let’s stay with the focus we have,” said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. “There’s not a reason to change.”

The bill will now move to the full House for consideration. It will likely face similar — if not more heated — concerns there.