Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
 
The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy
October 1999, Volume 2, Number 5
 
For the Record

States Act to Require Accurate Information in Sexuality Education

This summer, legislation was enacted in California and Missouri requiring the provision of medically accurate information in sexuality education courses. These are not the first states to impose such requirements; Alabama and Oregon have had similar provisions since the early 1990s. Still, the fact that these two very different jurisdictions felt compelled to address the issue of accuracy in sexuality education indicates that more states may follow.

In California, sexuality education supporters argued that the measure was necessary in order to require local school boards to adopt medically accurate curricula. As an example of the "scare tactics" in abstinence-only curricula they were aiming to prevent, they cited a lesson that suggested students could get AIDS from tears. Opponents of the bill contended that it could result in the labeling of all abstinence-promotion education as inaccurate and the prohibition of such instruction from public schools statewide.

Even with considerable opposition from abstinence-only education supporters, the bill passed both houses of the legislature with significant margins and was signed by Gov. Gray Davis (D) in August. Similar legislation was approved by the legislature last session, only to fall victim to then-governor Pete Wilson's (R) veto. Echoing the major arguments of abstinence-only advocates, Wilson said that the bill's definition of "medically accurate" information as that "supported by research, recognized as accurate and objective by leading medical, psychological, psychiatric, and public health organizations and agencies" was vague enough to invite litigation against individual school districts.

In Missouri, meanwhile, advocates of abstinence-only and more comprehensive sexuality education eventually came together around legislation signed by Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) in July. As originally introduced, the bill—which would have established abstinence-only sexuality education as the standard statewide—was strongly opposed by proponents of comprehensive sexuality education. Eventually, however, a compromise was struck, and a diverse coalition worked to reformulate the measure to require the provision of medically accurate information within the context of abstinence-based sexuality education. However, comprehensive sexuality education proponents maintain that the real challenge will be implementing the new law, given the extent to which abstinence-only programming is already established in the state.