Tenn. Pro-Abstinence Sex Education Law Sparks Debate

A pro-abstinence sex education law enacted recently in Tennessee has critics warning that it will fail to check the state's teen pregnancy rate, as supporters stand their ground on the need for barring explicit sex education.

The bill, labeled by critics as "no holding-hands bill," was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last month. It prohibits educators from advocating "gateway sexual activity," and uses the criminal statute on sexual assault to specify acts such as groping or fondling.

A New York-based reproductive health research organization, the Guttmacher Institute, is arguing that comprehensive sex education is appropriate and necessary for young people.

"What we know ... from the research is that comprehensive sex education works," said Elizabeth Nash, the institute's state issues manager, according to The Associated Press. "It delays sexual activity, it reduces the number of partners teens have, and it increases contraceptive use. There is very little in the way of any rigorous research that shows that abstinence education has any of these long-term benefits."

Nash attributes declining pregnancy rates around the United States to a move the country's state lawmakers took about a decade ago to consider more comprehensive sex education programs that talked about abstinence as well as contraception.

Tennessee's pregnancy rate among girls 15 to 17 has also dropped from 48.2 pregnancies per 1,000 girls in 1998 to 29.6 in 2009, according to the state Commission on Children and Youth. However, the institute says, it remains one of the highest in the nation.

Barry Chase, president of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, is also a critic. He says it "ties the hands" of educators, preventing them from providing the comprehensive education that "students want and need and their parents expect."

Measure's sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto, a Republican from Nashville, disagrees. "It's not abstinence-only education," he was quoted as saying. "I'm so sick of people trying to spin it as that ... because they don't like it. The law does specify that the curriculum has to be abstinence-focused, but they can talk about contraception."

Abstinence is defined in the state's statute but that changed little, said Gov. Haslam, justifying the need for the law.

"We put in tighter definitions, more clearly defined what abstinence-centered and abstinence-based meant," explained Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who sponsored the bill in his chamber.

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, agrees that it has closed a loophole. "I think that is unique in that rather than this legislation just saying there needs to be an emphasis on abstinence education, it also prohibits too explicit sex education from being either put in schools under the guise of abstinence education, or in opposition to an abstinence education program."

The law also bars family life curriculum from displaying or conducting "demonstrations with devices specifically manufactured for sexual stimulation," allowing parents to sue. A violation could mean a fine of at least $500.

Democratic Rep. John Deberry supports the measure. "When individuals are touching one another's intimate parts ... this is sexual activity that has its ultimate goal of penetration," he was quoted as saying.

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