Sex ed was in trouble before Roe v. Wade’s reversal. Now the curriculum matters even more
Nadra Nittle | August 3, 2022
Originally published by The 19th
What students learn in sex ed has taken on new urgency following the Supreme Court’s decision in June to reverse Roe v. Wade, leaving abortion access up to the states. And as the Texas Republican Party takes aim at what kids learn in school, that dynamic is front and center for many advocates.
Research indicates that comprehensive sexual education leads teens to delay intercourse and avoid unplanned pregnancy. Most states, however, do not require schools to teach comprehensive sex ed, and new policy proposals and legislation in some states may limit the curricula already offered to students.
The Texas GOP’s official 2022 platform, released last week, would ban “teaching of sex education, sexual health, or sexual choice or identity in any public school” and enforce policies embraced by anti-abortion movements, such as having students observe live ultrasounds and requiring schools to teach that life begins at fertilization. Students would also have to read a booklet that contained medically false risks about abortion.
Gaps in sex ed instruction in Texas and around the country could have life-changing impacts for students. This includes sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies they can’t legally terminate that make them vulnerable to quitting school and living in poverty.
“Programs that don’t include high quality, inclusive sex ed are really harmful to young people,” said Gillian Sealy, chief of staff at Power to Decide, the campaign to prevent unplanned pregnancy. “We anticipate that [the Supreme Court] ruling will have a negative impact on young people. We really want young people to be able to finish school; we want them to get an education.”
While elected officials don’t have to implement their parties’ platforms, Republican lawmakers in Texas could attempt to reframe the curriculum based on the newly released GOP agenda, sex ed proponents contend.
“It’s absolutely possible,” said Elizabethe Payne, a former Houston teacher and the founder and director of the Queering Education Research Institute, which works to create LGBTQ+ youth-affirming schools. “Texas education policy has always been impacted by the conservative right. These ideas all have been percolating for a number of decades in the state.”
Representatives for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond to The 19th’s request for comment about the state’s plans for sex ed. Texas currently offers a sex ed curriculum, but it does not require instruction to be medically accurate, stresses abstinence, does not discuss consent and frames homosexuality negatively. Rather than opt their children out of sex ed instruction, Texas families must opt them in, a setup that sex ed advocates say will result in too few students taking such classes.
Comprehensive sex ed includes lessons on sexual behavior and sexual health as well as on human development and healthy relationships, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In comprehensive sex ed, instructional materials are medically accurate, LGBTQ+ inclusive and age appropriate. Most students nationally do not receive sex ed that’s this exhaustive, and the information they do receive depends largely on the state where they live.
“What’s being delivered in classrooms around the country is a patchwork of policy and practice,” said Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, vice president of policy, partnerships and organizing for Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that promotes adolescent sexual health programs and policies. “All 50 states have varying different sex education requirements, if at all, and much of that power is then given to local school districts that also vary from district to district.”
While the District of Columbia and 39 states require schools to provide sex education, only 17 states mandate that the material covered be medically accurate. Just D.C. and 20 states require schools to teach students about contraception. Twenty-nine states mandate schools to emphasize abstinence in contrast to comprehensive sex ed, which characterizes sex as a normal part of life.
Advocates for comprehensive sex ed say that the push for lessons with an anti-abortion bent intersects with the national movement to prevent educators from discussing issues such as race, gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Now, because of the recent Supreme Court decision, teachers and educators are already facing concerns about what they are allowed to teach, and what they are able to discuss in classrooms,” Thu-Thao Rhodes said. “That goes beyond the recent Supreme Court decision to the fact that schools have become the center of the culture wars across the board, whether it is around book banning, whether it is around LGBT inclusion, whether it is critical race theory.”
Limiting access to abortion exacerbates existing concerns about sexual health instruction in Texas, Thu-Thao added. In the months before the high court’s ruling, Texas took steps to curtail abortion and has now implemented a functional total ban.
Texas ranks ninth in the nation in the rate of pregnancy among teens ages 15 to 19, according to 2019 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most recent available. In 2005, Texas, along with New Mexico, had the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rate. That year, almost 62 births occurred per 1,000 Texas teens ages 15 to 19, but the teen pregnancy rate fell by more than 60 percent by 2019. Although this is a dramatic improvement, one that many attribute to efforts to teach kids about their reproductive health, the Texas teen pregnancy rate (22.4 per 1,000 teens) remains significantly higher than the national teen birth rate (16.7 per 1,000), which has been declining since 1991. The state still ranks number one for repeat teen births.
“We’ve done such a good job bringing [teen pregnancy] rates down,” Sealy said. “And it seems as though we’re moving backward, where we could possibly see those rates increase, especially among communities of color and rural communities, where there’s economic disadvantages.”
Should the Texas GOP platform become a reality in the state, experts fear that unplanned pregnancies among teens could raise the high school dropout rate. About half of pregnant teens do not graduate from high school. Public schools often lack the funding and wraparound services needed to truly give pregnant and parenting teens the support they need, Sealy said. School districts are unlikely to have the resources to respond to an uptick in teen pregnancies that stem from abortion restrictions at the state and federal level. That’s why teens need access to contraception, Sealy said, but sex ed programs that exclude information about contraception and school health centers and insurance plans that don’t cover contraception both pose barriers.
“If you’re in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Texas is one of only two states that does not reimburse for contraceptives,” said Texas Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat. She added that the barriers teens in the state face don’t end there. “If you are a teen, you can consent for health care decisions about your baby, but you cannot cannot consent for yourself if you’re a minor. You cannot get contraceptives without parental consent even if you’re already a parent.”
Teen pregnancies have ripple effects that touch the next generation. Not only are children born to adolescents more likely to become teen parents themselves, they also have increased odds of entering the child welfare and criminal justice systems, dropping out of school and facing joblessness as adults. Howard is particularly concerned about the impact a lack of sex ed and abortion access will have on vulnerable teens such as those in foster care, who have higher rates of pregnancy than their peers outside the system.
“Some of these kids are in a foster care situation where they have their babies with them, but a lot of times the baby is placed in a separate foster care home,” Howard said. “They’re not even kept together. It’s a tragic kind of situation.”
Howard would like to see Texas youth receive long-acting reversible contraception. In Colorado, teens and young people received intrauterine devices and implants through the state’s family planning initiative, which a private donor funded in 2008. The initiative led to teen birth rates and teen abortions dropping by nearly half. In addition, births to women without a high school education fell 38 percent and repeat teen pregnancies fell by 57 percent.
Now that Roe has been overturned, scholars affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health have joined the call for improved student access to contraception. They want district leaders to allow school-based health centers to provide contraception to students and schools to exclusively use comprehensive sex ed programs.
Payne said that schools should also consider sidestepping mandates about what they’re permitted to teach by bringing in advocacy groups to provide medically accurate sex ed information. These groups may offer opportunities for students to get involved outside of school. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, for example, has a performance group for high school students in which they engage in peer-to-peer outreach on issues such as sexually transmitted infections, dating violence and pregnancy prevention.
But school will continue to play a major role in what the bulk of students learn about their sexual health. That’s why the Texas GOP’s new platform planks worry Howard, who questions if they’re scientifically sound. When life begins is far from settled. She cited Texas’ Senate Bill 8, one of a handful of laws across the nation known as “heartbeat bills” because they prohibit abortion after six weeks, the point at which their supporters argue that a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
“There is no heart at that point in time,” Howard said. “There are only cells that emit electrical activity that can be picked up by a Doppler machine and translate it into the sound of a heartbeat.”
She added that she has no problem with students learning about all aspects of pregnancy, but she fears that the GOP wants to use ultrasounds to perpetuate “mythological ideas.”
Texas GOP spokesperson James Wesolek told The 19th that the party would not “offer any further comment on the platform beyond what was said in our release,” which explains the procedures the party uses to vote and adopt its policy proposals.
The quality of sex ed, Payne said, is not just a Texas issue. She pointed out that in New York, where she now lives, sex ed is not mandated, materials are often outdated or include gender stereotyping that frame girls as the gatekeepers of sexual activity.
“It’s really important for us to be aware that the lack of sex education is a nationwide problem,” Payne said. “Even if you’re educating students in a state where abortion is still accessible, that does not mean that those young people are going to go to college in that state or they’re going to grow up and find jobs in that state.”
Proponents of comprehensive sex ed are also concerned about the impact that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law will have on sex education. That law took effect July 1, and it prohibits educators from teaching lessons about sexuality or gender identity to students in grades K-3 or to older students in a manner that would not be age appropriate.
Payne said that this law and Roe’s reversal could have grave consequences for queer youth.
“It is important to know that queer teens are two times as likely as their sexually active straight counterparts to be involved in an unplanned pregnancy, and this includes gay boys,” she said. “Abortion is a queer issue. … We can only imagine that the outcome is also going to be disproportionate on queer kids when they can’t access the kinds of health care they need.”
Just 12 states and D.C. require sex ed that includes the LGBTQ+ community, even though more young people than ever identify as queer. Critics of Don’t Say Gay say that it is written intentionally broadly and reports have already circulated that LGBTQ+ educators have removed pictures of their partners for fear of violating the legislation and facing disciplinary or legal action. The law will inevitably affect what educators feel they can discuss in sex education, sex ed advocates said. Even before its enactment, Florida was one of just four states, including Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, to require schools to discuss homosexuality in negative terms.
This does a disservice to young people, according to Thu-Thao Rhodes. She said they deserve and need access to a full range of information about their reproductive and sexual health to make healthy decisions.
“And what we’re seeing is law after law about what can be discussed in classrooms impacting their sexual health education and also their ability to affirm their identities and create safe and supportive environments in schools,” she said.