Louisiana Rep. Patricia Smith (D) is pushing for mandatory sexual education instruction in her state’s public schools, pointing out that children aren’t being adequately prepared to make healthy sexual choices. Smith has introduced House Bill 369 to amend the current state law to require every public school to provide age-appropriate sex ed, including information about FDA-approved contraceptive methods. The lawmaker told the Advocate that the current lack of adequate standards is “really a form of child abuse.”
Louisiana does not currently mandate sex ed, and actually forbids schools from offering it to students in elementary schools. After sixth grade, school districts may choose to implement sex ed courses that emphasize abstinence, but there aren’t any standardized curriculum requirements across counties. Critics point out that’s not good enough in a state with particularly high rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. In fact, Louisiana’s current abstinence-only model has been directly tied to endemic HIV rates among African-American youth.
“We have questions about drug abuse, then we set policy for drug abuse for our youth. We ask questions about tobacco, and we set policies driven to our youth. We don’t even ask questions about whether or not our children are taking risks related to sex,” Smith pointed out in a recent interview with the Louisiana Radio Network. “We are continually seeing an up-rise in the number of students between the ages of 13 and 24 with first and second stage syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. And of course HIV has risen among the same group of individuals.”
Smith has attempted to amend her state’s sex ed laws for the past several years in a row, but she’s been unsuccessful so far. Social conservatives in the state — including right-wing religious groups, like the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Louisiana Family Forum — are firmly opposed to updating the sex ed standards, saying that information about human sexuality should be left up to parents.
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has already come out against HB 369, releasing a prepared statement explaining that he’s opposed Smith’s previous legislation and has no plans to approach her new bill any differently. “These are decisions that are best made by parents and local communities, not state government,” Jindal’s statement notes.
Birth control tends to be the sticking point for the religious groups in the state, even though teaching kids about contraception isn’t actually controversial among the American public. During the debate over a previous version of Smith’s bill in 2010, some lawmakers received a condom attached to a sealed flier that read, “Compliments of Rep. Pat Smith’s Sex Education Bill.” That stunt led Smith to call for a change in House rules.
There’s concrete evidence that sex ed has a big impact on public health. Thanks to more widespread contraceptive use among adolescents, teens’ rates of unintended pregnancies, births, and abortions have all dropped to a record low. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the National Education Association all endorse comprehensive sex ed programs. Nonetheless, as Smith’s repeated fight for better sex ed demonstrates, changing these policies is often an uphill battle. Last year, just two states successfully enacted measures to expand comprehensive sex education — and others are working hard to weaken their state laws on the subject.