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Utah Legislature: Abstinence findings fuel sex-ed debate

Eagle Forum says focus is validated; others unconvinced

SALT LAKE CITY – A federally-funded study that found focusing on abstinence can delay sexual activity could add fuel to the fire as Utah lawmakers prepare to debate a bill on sex education.

The research "says what we've been saying for years and already know," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum.

The study revealed that only one third of sixth and seventh grade students who took classes focused on abstinence started having sex within two years. In the control group, students took classes that included contraception information — and half of them became sexually active within the same period of time.

John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the federally funded study, told the Washington Post, "I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence. Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used."

SB54 sponsor Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, and supporters of the bill, emphasize the proposed legislation doesn't remove abstinence from Utah's curriculum.

"Abstinence has always been a focus of sex education — always. No one is talking about doing away with abstinence and no one ever has," said Melissa Bird, Planned Parenthood Action Council of Utah executive director.

Currently, Utah educators may instruct on contraception options with prior parental consent. "Utah made the decision years ago we would be abstinence-based, not abstinence only," Urquhart said.

However, some teens, education officials and lawmakers say the problem with Utah's sex education is teachers are afraid of being accused of advocating sex so are therefore erring on the side of caution by eliminating important information. The education is therefore seriously lacking, they say.

Urquhart said his bill aims to accomplish three things: encourage a focus on abstinence, put more tools into the hands of parents regarding what their kids are learning, and get more medically accurate information out to teens.

The Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine published the national study.

Sarah Brown, who leads the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told the Washington Post, "This new study is game-changing. For the first time, there is strong evidence that an abstinence-only intervention can help very young teens delay sex and reduce their recent sexual activity as well."

Bird points out the study is based on students' self reporting — which may not be 100 percent honest. Further, the study examines a very specific population of children – African American middle school children, "so the results may not apply to us here in Utah."

The Utah PTA has had much input on Urquhart's bill but whether they will officially endorse it will be announced after PTA officials meet Wednesday.

Liz Zentner, Utah PTA health commissioner, said she believes abstinence has gotten a bad rap. "This study seems to validate an approach that many feel has the best chance of helping kids make the healthiest choice both physically and emotionally."

Zentner added she would be interested in seeing the curriculum the students in the study used. "We want to use an approach that has demonstrated it has a solid track record of making a difference," she said.

According to the Washington Post, the study involved 662 African-American students who were randomly assigned to go through one of five programs: An eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching the youngsters other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared to about 52 percent who were just taught safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who just learned about other ways to be healthy. The abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach, according to the Post.