MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate approved a Republican-backed bill late Wednesday that would require sex education teachers to stress abstinence over contraception, despite complaints that the measure would leave children ill-informed and do little to curtail teen pregnancy and sexual diseases.
The legislation dramatically rewrites a Democratic-backed law known as the Healthy Youth Act. Passed two years ago, the law requires schools that offer sex education to use a multi-faceted curriculum that includes instruction on the proper use of contraceptives.
Under the bill, school districts choosing to teach sex education must emphasize that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and disease. It also allows teachers to ignore contraception completely.
Democrats called the legislation foolish and unrealistic, but Republicans forced the measure through Wednesday night on a 17-15 party-line vote. It now goes to the state Assembly, though it’s unclear whether the chamber will consider the bill this year.
The bill’s author, Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, one of the most conservative members of the GOP caucus, stressed that the measure doesn’t impose an outright ban on contraception instruction. Instead, she said, it gives school districts more control over their sex education curriculums — even though the measure contains its own list of mandates.
“This is about small government at its best. This is about local control,” Lazich said.
But Democrats said the plan was an attempt to force conservative ideology into the state’s schools. They insisted that children deserved more than talk about abstinence in an age where they’re constantly pressured to have sex through Internet images and texting.
“To pretend (children aren’t having sex) is absolutely foolish,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said. “This is such a 19th-century mentality piece of legislation … you’d think we’d want to get out in front of this and make sure they learn properly there are consequences to their choices.”
Republicans have bristled over the Healthy Youth Act since it became law. Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth, a Republican and evangelical Christian, made headlines last year when he said he was so convinced that teaching contraception would lead to more teen sex that he would charge teachers who taught it with contributing to the delinquency of minors.
But now Republicans have control of state government, and have an opportunity to alter the law.
Major changes to the law are included in Lazich’s bill, which is backed by Pro-Life Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. In addition to emphasizing abstinence, the plan would require sex education teachers to teach parental responsibilities and the “socioeconomic” benefits of marriage. It also dictates the makeup of parent-teacher-clergy boards that advise school districts on sexual education and loosens the definition of medically accurate information.
“So much for science,” lamented Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay.
Democrats successfully convinced Republicans to amend the bill Wednesday to require that curriculums provide information about HIV, but they still labeled the bill a head-in-the-sand approach to sex education. Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, likened the bill to urging children to avoid car accidents without teaching driver’s education.
Lazich shot back, saying Democrats were misconstruing the bill. But Republicans offered little more in the way of a defense.
It’s unclear whether majority Republicans in the Assembly will have enough time to consider the bill this year. Thursday is the last scheduled floor session before lawmakers adjourn until January.
The bill is not on the Assembly’s calendar, but Republican leaders there could take it up anyway. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said late Wednesday that he was unsure if the chamber would take up the bill this year.
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