Lawmakers debate teaching sex ed in Bible Belt

Published 11:53 pm Monday, January 26, 2009

Legislators are debating whether teachers should talk about sex, in a comprehensive way, in Mississippi classrooms.

Sex education has emerged as a topic during the first weeks of the legislative session after a recent federal report said Mississippi has the nation’s highest teen birth rate.

Mississippi’s rate was more than 60 percent higher than the national average in 2006, according to new state statistics released earlier this month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Sexually transmitted diseases also are on the rise in the state, and experts say Mississippi’s perpetual poverty is tied to the number of teenage, single parents.

Openly discussing sex, particularly with teens, is still considered taboo in many circles of the Bible Belt state. State law doesn’t require sex education in public schools.

Shawna Davie, the Reproductive Freedom Project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said any sex education programs in schools are required to emphasize an abstinence-until-marriage philosophy.

“The state has been put in a bit of a pickle because the federal government doesn’t give any money for comprehensive sex education,” Davie told members of the House Select Committee on Poverty.

Davie said the cost of using comprehensive sex education curricula wouldn’t be that much beyond the expense of training educators and purchasing classroom materials, some of which can be obtained free over the Internet.

California and Washington are among the states that teach age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education, she said. Comprehensive sex education includes how to use condoms and birth control, she said.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, is sponsoring a bill to create a sex education pilot program. Under the bill, the state Board of Education and the state Department of Health would determine which grades to include and how the program will be implemented.

“Abstinence has its place but you need to talk about the consequences,” Jordan said. “I want young people to live.”

Jordan represents portions of the Mississippi Delta, which has the state’s highest rates of AIDS/HIV infection.

Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, is among those opposed to opening the door to sex education courses that would include information about birth control. Any information beyond simple instruction about the reproductive process should come from parents, he said.

“By teaching kids how to have sex and telling them these techniques, they are endorsing the practice. Abstinence is the way to go,” Gunn said. “All of my beliefs stem from my understanding of Scripture.”

Sexually transmitted diseases are a persistent problem for the state’s youth, according to data from the Department of Health. In 2007, there were 432 new cases of chlamydia in youth ages 10-14. The number was 8,444 for ages 15-19. The new cases of gonorrhea were 118 and 2,641, respectively. There were 36 new HIV cases in the 15-19 age group and none among the younger teens.

Jordan said his proposal would let parents decide whether to allow their children to participate in sex education.

Senate Education Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, said he would take a look at the sex education proposal next week. Carmichael said he’s been focused on locating additional money for public school districts recently hit with budget cuts.

“I haven’t studied it that close,” Carmichael said.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said the state’s teen-pregnancy rate and high-infant mortality rate show that “we probably need to do something.” However, he said any legislation that’s adopted should include a component for parental influence.

The growing incidence of teen births places an economic strain on the state, Marianne Hill, a senior economist with the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, told the House panel last week.

Hill placed the figure at about $150 million in state and federal dollars, based on providing health care, foster care and other expenditures in addition to lost tax revenue and lower earnings.

State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds and Department of Health officials have given lawmakers information about the kind of programs that state already has that provide information about sex and STDs to teenagers.

When asked if it is government’s role to educate teens about sex, Bounds responded: “Unfortunately, I don’t know if we have any other choice.”

The bill is Senate Bill 2291.