Sex-ed bill to strip local control of content nears vote

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BOSTON – Conservative groups are voicing concerns over a sex-education bill that they say would strip control of course content from local authorities and impose state-mandated requirements if it passes into law. A full Senate vote on the measure is set for Wednesday.

While the proposal does not appear to force school districts to provide sex-ed to students, it would mandate new standards for those that already have such courses or that would create them in the future, according to language in the proposal. Opponents say the bill would require those high schools to teach underage girls how to obtain an abortion without the consent of their parents.

“The push-back from supporters of the bill is that it doesn’t mandate anything,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “But then why was the bill drafted in the first place?”

Currently, Massachusetts law does not require sex education in public schools, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research group in New York that promotes sexual health. It says 22 states mandate teaching sex-ed, and 20 of those require that it include information about the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Among states that require it, 19 have laws that say it must be medically, factually or technically accurate, though the definition of those terms varies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It says 35 states let parents keep their kids out of sex-ed classes.

The proposed Massachusetts measure to come before the Senate Wednesday calls for school districts that offer sex-ed to make sure the courses provide “medically accurate, age-appropriate” material by the start of classes next fall. It also lays out rules for parents who would keep their children out of the classes. The Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended passage of the bill earlier.

Age-appropriate topics, according to the bill, dubbed “An Act Relative to Healthy Youth,” are defined as “messages and teaching methods suitable to particular ages or age groups of children and adolescents, based on developing cognitive, emotional and behavioral capacity typical for the age or age group.”

Several organizations, including Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, a health care and abortion provider, and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, an advocacy group, support passage of the proposal.

The bill would provide for “a real opportunity to ensure young people are able to take control of their health, and combat issues like teen dating violence and sexual assault,” Megan Amundson, NARAL’s Massachusetts executive director, said in an email, according to the State House News Service. She said backers of the bill will need an “all hands on deck” effort to ensure it passes the Senate.

Beckwith objects to what he said the state considers to be “age-appropriate,” including information about prophylactic devices to protect 12-year-olds from sexually-transmitted diseases during oral sex.

“This bill would also require schools to teach high-school girls how to get an abortion without parental consent,” Beckwith said in a statement about the proposal released Monday. “And that is despite the fact that many of those students would be under the legal age of consent for sex in the first place.”

Beckwith pointed to curriculum approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s AIDS Advisory Panel, manuals and teaching guides produced by Planned Parenthood and other organizations, which the state has endorsed for sexual health classes. The state lists Planned Parenthood’s “Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works” as “recommended.”

Beckwith pointed to a series of fill-in-the-blank questions featured in the Planned Parenthood manual, including one that quizzes students about the health benefits of using prophylactics during oral sex.

“That’s the curricula,” Beckwith said. “Currently the elected school committee in my town has control over what is taught.

“Why get rid of local control on something that’s so sensitive?”

The Senate convenes Wednesday at 11 a.m.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.