Utah schools must teach abstinence in sex education. But what can they say about abortion?

The topic is “not technically prohibited” from discussion in the classroom, says Utah State Board of Education spokesperson.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High students walk out to protest the Supreme Court's leaked decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and give states the power to ban abortions on Thursday, May 12, 2022. What Utah students can learn about abortion isn't defined in law, so it's up to each district.

For a conservative state that heavily regulates what public schools can teach about sex, it may come as a surprise that there is nothing specific in Utah law about classroom discussions on abortion.

Some parents have questioned how the topic is presented to Utah’s students after a Supreme Court draft opinion was recently leaked, showing a majority of the court privately voting to overturn Roe v. Wade and leave the decision on allowing abortions up to each state.

Parent groups have been posting on social media about making sure that abortion is not being presented as an option to teens — especially since it will be generally banned in Utah, if the court moves forward as expected. But students at several Salt Lake Valley high schools walked out last week in protest of the anticipated ruling and in favor of abortion rights.

“This is absolutely a high school issue,” one of the student speakers said at Highland High.

When it comes to sex education in Utah, the law requires that educators only stress abstinence, instructing that chastity is the best method to prevent pregnancy and transmitted diseases. And teachers are prohibited from any “advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices.”

Parents must opt their child in, too, for those discussions.

Mark Peterson, spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education, said because teaching about abortion doesn’t appear anywhere with that state code, though, it’s “not technically prohibited” from discussion in the classroom.

But that’s not the end of it. The core standards for health education — which are meant to guide educators on the topics they need to teach — don’t mention abortion, either. They were last updated in April 2019.

In outlining what is to be taught about “unintended pregnancy,” teachers are instructed to discuss adoption and the Newborn Safe Haven Law that allows parents to give up a baby younger than 30 days at a hospital without consequences.

Because it is not in the standards, that means it is not something that must be taught, Peterson said.

So it is not prohibited by law but it’s not required by the standards. Where does that leave things?

Peterson said the decision goes next to individual school districts and charters on what they want to include about abortion in sex education.

For instance, Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said: “Abortion is not in the state standards, hence we do not teach it.”

Horsley said he expects most other districts take a similar approach.

But a district could include some discussion on the topic, if it wanted.

Peterson said all instructional materials, guest speakers and curriculum need to be vetted by a district or charter’s materials review committee (made up of parents and school staff) and then approved by the local school board in a public meeting. Any materials on abortion would have to go through that process before they are in the classroom.

“So, to some extent, it is local control,” Peterson said.

Additionally, the topic of abortion could also be brought up by individual students.

In Utah, according to statute, teachers are allowed to “respond to spontaneous student questions for the purposes of providing accurate data or correcting inaccurate or misleading information or comments made by students in class regarding sex education.”

Several groups, including the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, have protested the allowance of those types of questions and answers.

There are some limitations on the format. Teachers cannot answer questions concerning sexual techniques. And districts can limit that further.

There is also a state document that lists appropriate answers for teachers to give on certain topics. That document notes that abortion is likely to come up.

When a student asks what abortion is, an educator is instructed to answer: “The termination of pregnancy by various means, including medical surgery, before the fetus is able to sustain independent life.”

That is the standard legal definition for abortion. Horsley said teachers in Granite are instructed to use those provided answers “before moving on.”

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