The sex ed bill clarifying what Utah teachers can say about condoms passed in the House — with surprising support

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, speaks on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018.

It’s been attacked by conservative groups for encouraging “more sex among teenagers.” And it’s been questioned by state lawmakers who worried it would take the focus of sex education in Utah away from abstinence.

But on Tuesday, the controversial bill that would clarify what teachers can say about contraception — condoms and birth control pills — surprisingly passed in the House with a unanimous vote.

“It’s somewhat astounding to me that I would get to a point where there’s enough agreement to get this through,” said Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, the measure’s sponsor.

After initially stalling in committee and then facing heavy debate when it was revived, HB71 has changed a bit since its first draft. The bill is meant to clarify state statute and provide more information for health instructors to talk with students about “the medical characteristics, effectiveness and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices.”

In amendments and substitutions that helped the bill pass, the measure now requires teachers to also talk about “the risks” of contraception with instructions that “stress the importance of” no sexual relationships before marriage and fidelity after. It prohibits lessons on “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior.” And it empowers school districts to provide more training.

“Some groups wanted minor changes to the language,” Ward said. “I worked with those pro-family groups to do that.”

In Utah law, it is mandated that health classes, which include sex education, 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 they cannot advocate for it. Many skip it altogether to avoid overstepping.

Ward’s measure wouldn’t change the overall focus on the law. It would remove the gray area and expressly delineate for teachers what is considered advocating and what is just instruction.

“It leaves that prohibition appropriately in place,” he said. “But this portion of our code had been edited so many times that the language was no longer complete sentences. When you tried to read it, it was gobbledygook.”

Parents will continue to have the choice whether to “opt in" their children. And individual schools and districts could still choose to not provide instruction on the topic at all.

The bill had unexpected support from GOP lawmakers Tuesday. Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, said he hopes the clarification will cut down the number of abortions in the state.

“This kind of education can help prevent unwanted pregnancies,” he added. “I see it as a preventative measure.”

The bill will now move to the Senate for consideration.