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At Issue: Whose values are they anyway?

Published (4/17/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Barb Anderson, a former teacher, listens as Lorie Alveshere, policy director for the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting, tells the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee that 22 states have abandoned an abstinence-only curriculum of sex education. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)It’s not surprising that Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) sponsors a bill promoting sex education in schools. After all, he’s just living his family values.

After his father’s death last May, Hornstein came across a yellowed newspaper clipping while cleaning the Cincinnati apartment where the retired obstetrician-gynecologist lived. The Feb. 2, 1968, Cincinnati Enquirer article described Dr. Stephen Hornstein’s work as an early champion of sex education and legal abortion for unmarried teenagers in an era when many parents avoided discussing such touchy topics.

Sex education at home and at school would help combat “the tragedy of teenage pregnancy,” Dr. Hornstein told a reporter. Although he encouraged parents to talk to their children and set curfews and rules about dating and going steady, he added that “schools may have to take the lead if parents feel incapable.”

Not only did the lawmaker inherit a legacy of advocacy, he married one. Hornstein’s wife Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, is a founding member of the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The couple has three teenage children.

Now Hornstein sponsors HF906, which would require school districts to offer seventh through 12th grade students a “responsible family life and sexuality education” curriculum that includes abstinence education and medically accurate, age-appropriate information about preventing pregnancy and diseases.

The bill does not mandate a particular curriculum, but requires parents to participate in a district’s curriculum selection process and allows them to excuse their children from all or part of a program.

The changes don’t go far enough for former teacher Barb Anderson, who said the bill promotes “unhealthy behaviors.” She enumerated specific sexual activities and prevention methods included in several popular curricula that she said parents could find objectionable, and said programs considered “comprehensive” may give lip service but not equal weight to promoting abstinence.

Yet even an opponent might agree with the words of the elder Hornstein: “I’m convinced that, in many instances, young people don’t realize how their feelings can run away with them. They lose their judgment and begin an early sex life which has the potentiality of becoming disruptive and destructive.”

New data, old problem

“When I found the article I thought, ‘Wow, there is nothing new under the sun,’” Hornstein said. The experience reinforced his commitment to bring the bill forward, though it continues to face strong opposition from groups such as the Minnesota Family Council. “For me it’s partly a connection to him and his legacy, but it’s also partly (that) the exact same issues were raised 41 years ago and here we are.”

His concern is heightened by some new Minnesota Department of Health data.

After years of decline, teenage pregnancy increased 6 percent and 2 percent in 2005 and 2006 respectively, while rates of sexually transmitted infections such as Chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea rose 3.5 percent overall, continuing a 10-year rising trend. Although 15- to 19-year-olds comprise 7 percent of Minnesota’s population, they account for 30 percent of Chlamydia and 25 percent of gonorrhea cases. Rates of STIs, pregnancy and birth are higher among teens of color.

Survey says parents want sex ed

A University of Minnesota survey of 1,600 Minnesota parents published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health found 89.3 percent supported a curriculum such as that proposed in the bill, including information about birth control, condom use and the benefits of waiting to initiate sexual activity, Dr. Michael Resnick told the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee April 2. About 10 percent favored an abstinence-only program, while less than 1 percent did not want any sex education in schools.

“It is very unusual to see this level of concurrence in surveys,” said Resnick, a University of Minnesota pediatrics and public health professor who directed the survey, “yet these results are reflecting findings from parent surveys in other parts of the country as well.”

Resnick said sound research indicates the type of sex education proposed in the bill is linked to delaying the age of first sexual intercourse, increased proper use of condoms, fewer sexual partners over time and lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and birth. On the other hand, he said abstinence-only programs such as that promoted in recent federal initiatives, “do not show these positive behavioral changes.”

The committee has yet to act, but Hornstein hopes it will move forward next year with some of the changes he’s made from last year’s version that was approved by the full House, but tabled by the Senate. “We know there are differences of opinion across our state about what’s the best way to do this, but we accommodate as much of that as possible.”

A companion, SF965, sponsored by Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), awaits action by the Senate Education Committee.

Teens haven’t changed much, Hornstein said, but “we know we can address some of the negative health and social implications by responsible sex education. And that’s the fact. We know it works and we know it’s appropriate.”

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