June 26, 2012 — Although the controversy surrounding Tennessee's new sex education law (HB 3621) has centered on a provision banning lessons on "gateway sexual activity," there has been little discussion on whether the measure will actually reduce teenage pregnancy rates, the AP/Washington Post reports.
The law, approved last month by Gov. Bill Haslam (R), requires an abstinence-centered approach to sex education in public schools. It uses the state's criminal statute on sexual assault to define acts -- such as groping and fondling -- that are considered gateway sexual activities and thus cannot be endorsed in classes. The law also states that instructors must not "display or conduct demonstrations with devices specifically manufactured for sexual stimulation." Instructors who do not comply with the new law can be sued and fined for $500 or more.
State Rep. Jim Gotto (R), who sponsored the legislation, said the law should not be characterized as "abstinence-only education." He said the law specifies only that sex education curricula be "abstinence-focused" and does not prevent instructors from discussing contraception. Supporters of the law have argued that abstinence is the most reliable way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
Teen Pregnancy Rate Remains High
According to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, the pregnancy rate among girls ages 15 to 17 has declined steadily since the first abstinence-focused sex education curricula took effect in the 1990s. Despite the decrease, the state's teen pregnancy rate remains one of the highest in the nation, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Experts on adolescent health said the new law will leave teens inadequately informed about sexuality and the prevention of STIs and pregnancy. Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for Guttmacher, said there has been a shift among state lawmakers in the last two years to promote abstinence-only education. She noted that while research on comprehensive sex education has found that it "delays sexual activity, it reduces the number of partners teens have, and it increases contraceptive use," there has been "little in the way of any rigorous research that shows that abstinence education has any of these long-term benefits."
Barry Chase, president of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, agreed that comprehensive sex education is the best approach. "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," he said (AP/Washington Post, 6/24).