In a vote of 17–15, the Wisconsin Senate passed legislation to repeal the WisconsinHealthy Youth Acton November 2, 2011. The measure, Senate Bill 237, seeks to rewrite the state’s sex education policy, overturning legislation enacted in February 2010 that requires human sexuality education provided in schools to be medically accurate, age-appropriate, and comprehensive. If enacted, the bill would redefine the terms “medically accurate” and “age-appropriate” and would require instruction to emphasize abstinence as the “only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted infections” and teach the “socioeconomic benefits of marriage.”
Under current law, school districts are encouraged to teach human growth and development education to students in grades K–12 that provides them with “the knowledge, skills, and support necessary to make healthy decisions” throughout the lifespan about their sexual behavior. Such instruction must address a range of topics including but not limited to the importance of parent-child communication; “reproductive and sexual anatomy and physiology”; “puberty, pregnancy, parenting, body image, and gender stereotypes”; responsible decision making; abstinence; and the “health benefits, side effects, and proper use of contraceptives and barrier methods.”
When the legislation passed in February 2010 it received strong support from the then Democrat-controlled legislature. However, it quickly drew backlash from local conservatives. Most notably, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth threatened that school districts would face criminal charges for implementing the new law. State policy makers and advocates declared Southworth’s claims to be false and criticized his antics as fear mongering.
Senate Bill 237 serves as the latest attempt to undercut the Healthy Youth Act and efforts to provide necessary sexual health information to Wisconsin’s young people by reestablishing a failed abstinence-only-until-marriage approach. If passed, the bill would require instruction to:
- Present abstinence as the preferred choice of behavior for unmarried pupils;
- Emphasize that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted infections;
- Provide instruction in parental responsibility and the socioeconomic benefits of marriage; and,
- Explain pregnancy, prenatal development, and childbirth.
The bill also would eliminate the majority of the state’s requirements for human sexuality instruction. Instead, it would simply recommend certain instructional topics and omit the provision that instruction teach the health benefits, side effects, and proper use of contraceptive methods. The bill would further add as a recommended topic for instruction, “adoption resources, prenatal care, and postnatal support, and the nature and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, personal responsibility, and the positive connection between marriage and parenting.” In addition, it would require instruction on “the benefits of and reasons for abstaining from sexual activity,” language currently in law, to also teach “the skills necessary to remain abstinent.” Finally, it would require the state superintendent to apply for all federal funding allocated to provide instruction in any of the topics mentioned in the bill, which in part would mandate the state to apply for funding that can be used to teach ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
Along with attempting to change instructional requirements for sex education, Senate Bill 237 also seeks to redefine the terms “medically accurate” and “age-appropriate” that are included in the current law. The proposed changes to these terms would effectively weaken the criteria for information that is allowed to be presented in the classroom as fact-based and accurate, as well as potentially limit young people from receiving instruction that is appropriate for their level of cognitive and emotional development.
“For all young people, but especially those who do not receive medically accurate information from their parents, church or peers, our public schools are the best places to give them nondiscriminatory facts about how to stay healthy and make responsible choices. Repealing the Health Youth Act would be a regressive move for Wisconsin’s students and public health,” stated the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin in a blog post published on its website.
Finally, Senate Bill 237 would provide school districts with the option to separate students by gender when providing instruction in human growth and development and eliminate the requirement under current law that a school district notify parents if it chooses not to offer human sexuality instruction.
“This bill threatens to move us backwards in building up the next generation of informed, healthy youth. We all know teens need information to make healthy and responsible decisions about sex. Parents and youth should be outraged at this legislative sabotage,” commented Stacy Harbaugh, communications strategist for the ACLU of Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Assembly held a public hearing on the bill on November 16—the final day of the state legislative session. Debate on the bill is scheduled to resume in the Assembly during the next legislative session, where it is expected to gain strong support.