On Thursday, November 4th, the Wisconsin Assembly passed the Healthy Youth Act (AB 458 and SB 324) by a vote of 48-43.[i] The bill would require Wisconsin school districts that offer instruction on human sexuality to teach comprehensive sex education. Current Wisconsin law requires that human sexuality education stress abstinence-only-until-marriage. The new bill would require school districts to provide medically accurate and age-appropriate information that addresses “the health benefits, side effects, and proper use of contraception and other methods for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases” among other topics.[ii] Representative Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) and Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) introduced the bill.[iii]
Proponents of the bill include the Wisconsin teachers’ union, groups representing nurses and health departments, and Planned Parenthood. These groups say the new bill will address the poor sexual health outcomes among adolescents in Wisconsin—including rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy—along with providing necessary information to students. In 2005, the teen birth rate increased in Wisconsin for the first time since the early 90s. In 2007 (the year for which most recent data is available), the teen birth rate in Wisconsin was 32 births per 1,000 females age 15–19—an increase from the 2006 rate of 30.6 births per 1,000 and the 2005 rate of 30.1 per 1,000.[iv] Milwaukee in particular experiences poor sexual health outcomes among adolescents. The city consistently ranks in the top 10 of U.S. major cities with the highest teen pregnancy rates ,and in 2008 the rate of Chlamydia among Milwaukee residents was 5,479 per 100,000 persons compared to the state rate of 371 cases per 100,000.[v]
“We know that there are sexually active teens, and I think that we have the responsibility to give them appropriate information and protect them,” stated Louise Blankenheim, executive director of learning for the Green Bay area schools.[vi]
In 2006, Governor Jim Doyle signed into law the state’s current sex education policy, which requires classes in sex education to stress that “abstinence from sexual activity before marriage is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” The law allows sex education classes to occur in kindergarten through 12thg grade and permits instruction to include such topics as self-esteem, responsible decision-making, personal responsibility, interpersonal relationships, sex stereotypes and protective behavior, among other topics. Instruction can also address family planning, but may only include information on natural family planning methods.[vii]
The newly proposed bill aims to make the law, and the instruction students can receive, more comprehensive by requiring all instruction to be medically accurate (defined as “recognized as accurate by relevant leading professional organizations or agencies, such as the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, or the American Academy of Pediatrics”[viii]), and to address “puberty, pregnancy, parenting, body image, and gender stereotypes,” “skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality and sexual behavior throughout the pupil’s life span,” and “the health benefits, side effects, and proper use of contraceptives and barrier methods approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.”[ix] Furthermore, the bill states that programs in sex education must “use instructional methods and materials that do not promote bias against pupils of any race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities.” The bill includes an “opt-out” provision allowing parents to remove their child from any instruction without penalty and also requires school districts to notify parents if it does not offer instruction in human sexuality.[x]
The bill now must pass the Senate and be signed by Governor Doyle before it can become law. The Healthy Youth Act is opposed by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the Wisconsin Right to Life, who oppose contraception education, however, the cultural climate in the state seems to support providing accurate and comprehensive sex education to young people. For example, according to the State Department of Instruction, in 2007 , 94 percent of school districts taught human sexuality and 88 percent taught pregnancy prevention classes to students in grades 6 through twelve, despite the fact that it was not mandated.[xi] Furthermore, a poll conducted in 2007 of registered Wisconsin voters showed the 87 percent supported comprehensive sex education.[xii] Passage of the bill would make Wisconsin the 16th state to require instruction on contraception.[xiii]
Faustina Bohling, a Wisconsin mother of four, was pleased with the passage of the bill saying that it is important to provide complete information to youth about abstinence and contraception to ensure that they are well-equipped and informed: “It’s our responsibility to teach our youth, so that way they can have the life that they’re going to dream of.”[xiv]
[ii] “Wisconsin Sex Education Bill Advances; Requires Instruction on Contraception,” Medical News Today (6 November 2009), accessed 8 November 2009, <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/170067.php>.
[iii] Lynn Welch, “Wisconsin Sex Ed Bill Sparks Controversy,” Isthmus (22 October 2009), accessed 8 November 2009, <http://www.isthmus.com/isthmus/article.php?article=27216>.
[xi] “Wisconsin Sex Education Bill Advances; Requires Instruction on Contraception.”
[xii] Marcie Kobriger, “State Bill Would Set Requirements for Sex Education Curriculum.”
[xiii] “Wisconsin Sex Education Bill Advances; Requires Instruction on Contraception.”
[xiv] Samara Kalk Derby, “Bill Would Rewrite Rules for Sex Ed,” Wisconsin State Journal (26 October 2009), accessed 8 November 2009, <http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/education/article_f0fed03e-c1cd-11de-bf1e-001cc4c002e0.html>.