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Planned Parenthood: ‘Gateway Sexual Activity’ Law A Disservice to Students

Press Release from Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, May 11, 2012: 

Tennessee has the tenth highest rate of teenage births in the United States. At Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, we hear every day from young people who say they were never taught the facts about sex and pregnancy prevention. That’s why we were especially disappointed today to hear that Governor Bill Haslam had signed a bill that guts the state’s “family life” sexuality education program.

HB 3621/SB 3310, signed by Governor Haslam today, will change Tennessee’s family life curriculums to “exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student’s current or prior sexual experience”—effectively denying students valuable and even life-saving information about contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

This new law also allows teachers or outside contractors to be sued for “encouraging” or “condoning” nonspecific “gateway sexual behavior.” Some critics have speculated that teachers could even be held liable if students hold hands or kiss in their presence.

Tennessee students need more information about puberty, their own bodies and proven methods that prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease. Denying them this prevention information in order to exclusively promote abstinence until marriage does our students a serious disservice.

Studies show that young people who are knowledgeable about contraceptive methods are less likely to take part in risky behavior and more likely to use a highly effective method of birth control when they do become sexually active. (See “Young Adults’ Contraceptive Knowledge, Norms and Attitudes: Associations with Risk of Unintended Pregnancy,” by Jennifer Frost, et al. of the Guttmacher Institute.)

Polls show that parents overwhelmingly support comprehensive and medically accurate sex education programs. In fact, a recent 2011 poll from the University of Memphis shows that vast majority of Shelby County residents wish that teenagers were provided more comprehensive information about sex.

“HB 3621/SB 3310, the abstinence-only sex education bill signed into law by Governor Haslam today is a step backward for the young people of Tennessee,” said Barry Chase, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region. “Most parents in Tennessee want students to get comprehensive sexuality education that includes messages about prevention as well as abstinence. They expect that the schools will equip their young people with the information they need to protect themselves. This bill ties the hands of educators in Tennessee and will prevent them from providing the comprehensive education that students want and need and their parents expect.”

To find out more about Planned Parenthood’s education programs, visit our website: www.ppgmr.org.

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‘Gateway Sexual Activity’ Bill a Tease — Won’t Change Much, TN Edu. Official Says

The thrust of sex education classes taught in Tennessee schools will stay the same under a controversial bill awaiting the governor’s signature, according to the Department of Education.

The so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill seeks to punish teachers and third-party groups that promote “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior” and rewrite state code to emphasizes abstinence education — both issues that caught the national spotlight this year.

“It really will not do much to change the current curriculum, the ways schools operate currently,” said Kelli Gauthier, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

Lawmakers easily passed the bill after much debate in the Legislature about whether abstinence education works, whether definitions of “gateway sexual activity” are too vague and whether teachers can get in trouble for not discouraging hand-holding, hugging or kissing.

The legislation points to the state’s current definition of “sexual contact” as “intentional touching of any other person’s intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of … any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.”

“Intimate parts” is defined as “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being” in state law.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s unsure what action he’ll take on the bill. From his study of HB3621 so far, “I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice,” he told reporters last week after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new science building at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

But bill sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto says the law’s current definition of abstinence isn’t clear enough.

Abstinence is “being interpreted as anything goes as long as your action will not result in a pregnancy. That’s exactly the way it’s being taught today,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville.

According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Tennessee teen pregnancies is down 19 percent to 9,254 pregnancies in 2010. But the pregnancy rate is still among the top 10 in the nation.

In the House, the bill passed 68-23 with some bipartisan support. The bill won near unanimous approval in the Senate with only one holdout, Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

“We want to teach our children to be abstinent, but in the event that they don’t listen to us, we need to protect our children and see to it that they don’t fall victims to unwanted or unneeded pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” she said on the Senate floor shortly before the bill passed.

Democratic leaders in the House were split on the issue, with Caucus Leader Mike Turner saying the bill was merely an example of Republicans being “obsessed with sex this year” and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh saying bill is flawed only because it does little to address teenage pregnancy.

Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis, instead, says the state finds itself in a quandary between supporting personal freedoms and trying to legislate behavior to stop unwanted pregnancies.

“We have a whole state department that takes care of somebody else’s mess,” he said, adding that one school in his district was home to 70 girls who had become pregnant.

“We can’t tell people what they shouldn’t do. Well, when we don’t tell them what they shouldn’t do, then we end up paying for what they do. At some point in time, we have to say, change the behavior,” Deberry said before voting for the bill.

Critics cite another rub: The bill would give parents the power to file complaints against any instructor or organization that promotes or demonstrates any sort of sexual activity.

Only instructors teaching sex ed and promoting “gateway sexual activity” would be subject to discipline. If the individual is employed by an outside group to teach the material, the teacher or its organization can be fined up to $500. Science teachers, instructors verbally answering students’ questions about sexual activity in good faith and teachers of other courses would not be subject to discipline.

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Haslam Defends Plans to Veto ‘All Comers’ Bill

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the impression that Gov. Bill Haslam had already vetoed the legislation described below. In fact, as of this story’s initial posting, the governor had only announced his intention to veto the bill.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s receiving “some” criticism over his announcement that he will veto a bill targeting Vanderbilt University’s discrimination policy imposed on student clubs.

But he says he stands by his belief that the legislation inappropriately interferes with the affairs of a private organization.

“I think when we explain to folks, ‘Hey, if the Legislature wanted to impose their will on a private institution that you didn’t like, how would you feel about that?’” he told reporters after a groundbreaking ceremony for Middle Tennessee State University’s Science Building Thursday. “I think once you explain it that way, people tend to understand.”

Haslam announced Wednesday he would use his his first veto to strike down the bill that requiring public colleges and universities and those accepting $24 million or more in taxpayer dollars to let religious student clubs chose their membership and leadership.

The governor said he was OK with the bill when it was aimed at public colleges, such as MTSU, but adding Vanderbilt to the bill was going too far.

The measure passed easily in both chambers of the Republican-run Legislature, with minority-party Democrats opposed.

“I just don’t think it’s a road that we should go down,” House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, the chamber’s leading Democrat said Wednesday, hours before the governor announced he wouldn’t allow the measure to become law. It “was just a pretty bad bill. It was the biggest in government intrusion of a private business or institution that I can ever remember.”

The governor said Thursday he’s still weighing what action he’ll take on the so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill that encourages education about abstinence and restricts teachers from distributing materials that “condone, encourage or promote student sexual activity.”

He said he’s not sure the bill, HB3621, will do much to change current law.

“I actually was reviewing the specifics of that this morning and reading through the language, comparing it to our current practice. I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice, but I, we haven’t made a final decision,” he told reporters when asked if he would veto that bill, too.

Haslam’s philosophy on vetoing legislation rests upon whether he “felt like the bill was bad for Tennessee,” he told reporters last month. “If I felt like maybe it wasn’t bad for Tennessee, but it just added confusion to a situation, maybe I just wouldn’t sign it in that case.”