2012 was a banner year for new state-level abortion restrictions, yet not a single state enacted a law to improve access to family planning services or comprehensive sex education. Although the nation’s rate of unintended teen pregnancies is dropping, the U.S. still has the highest teen birth rate of any nation in the developed world — yet 26 states still require high school health classes to emphasize ineffective abstinence education, rather than prioritizing comprehensive sexual health instruction that includes accurate information about methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and STD transmission.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any attempts to move the country forward. A national bill to expand access to LGBT-inclusive, gender balanced sex education was recently introduced by 34 Democratic politicians. And on a more localized level, these five states are also taking important steps to help ensure that teenagers have all of the information they need to better understand their bodies and their sexuality:
1. COLORADO: Lawmakers in Colorado are advancing a bill that would move the state away from its current abstinence-only curricula to include comprehensive sexual health instruction, including requiring health classes in public schools to use inclusive language about LGBT issues. As openly gay state Rep. Dominick Moreno (D) argued on the House floor, traditional sex ed programs don’t often have adequate resources to help students who are struggling with their sexuality. Republicans largely opposed the provision of the legislation that would require the state’s sex ed classes to be LGBT-inclusive, and the anti-gay Focus on the Family lobbied hard against the bill — but despite their objections, the measure was approved by the House on Friday.
2. HAWAII: The state’s House Committee on Education is currently considering a measure that would incorporate comprehensive sexual education into all of Hawaii’s public schools. The bill would require Hawaii’s public elementary, middle, intermediate, high, and alternative schools to include medically accurate sexual health instruction in their curricula. Rep. John Mizuno (D), who introduced the measure, pointed out that unintended pregnancies currently cost the state an estimated $22 million each year — and more comprehensive sex ed would be a better investment. “Comprehensive sex education will equip our young people with the knowledge and tools necessary to be conscious of their decisions when it comes to sex,” Rep. Mizuno pointed out.
3. ALABAMA: Alabama’s first openly gay legislator, state Rep. Patricia Todd (D), is doing her best to update the standards for sexual education for the teens in her state. At the beginning of the new legislative session, Todd re-introduced a measure to repeal Alabama’s 1992 abstinence-only education law, an outdated piece of legislation that requires health classes to teach students that homosexuality is illegal. Todd’s bill would put the Department of Education in charge of establishing more comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed classes — an important update, since the state legislature currently sets the standards for sex ed and has the power to turn students’ basic health instruction into a politicized battlefield.
4. ILLINOIS: The Chicago public school system is considering an overhaul of its sexual education program that would require health classes to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time. The city’s chief health officer notes that if the new policy is enacted, Chicago’s public schools would comprise the largest urban U.S. school district with a required minimum of sex ed instruction and a specific curriculum for each grade level — a move spurred partly by the fact that over half of Chicago teens are sexually active. Under the new program, students below fifth grade would learn about anatomy, healthy relationships, puberty, and HIV transmission. After fifth grade, students would receive age-appropriate, LGBT-inclusive instruction about human reproduction, healthy decision-making, bullying, and contraception.
5. NORTH DAKOTA: Republicans in North Dakota are currently advancing several attacks on women’s health, and at the beginning of this month, it looked like abortion opponents might also successfully block sex ed resources for at-risk youth. After North Dakota State University won a three-year federal grant to partner with Planned Parenthood to provide sexual health services for at-risk teenagers, anti-abortion activists threatened to derail the program simply because Planned Parenthood was participating. The school faced significant pressure to back out of the grant — but fortunately, now that the state’s Attorney General has confirmed that partnering with Planned Parenthood doesn’t actually conflict with state law, the program will be allowed to move forward. University officials are celebrating the victory, which will allow teens between 15 and 19 years old to receive the comprehensive sexual health and family planning resources they need.