Stephanie Grace: On sex ed, lawmakers choose to abstain

If lawmakers are going to do everything in their power to restrict the availability of abortion services — and Louisiana lawmakers are in the process of doing just that by overwhelmingly backing a bill that purports to protect women but in reality limits their access to a constitutionally protected procedure — the least they can do is confront the problem of unwanted pregnancy on the front end.

As contentious as the fight over abortion rights is and will surely remain, everyone can agree that reducing unwanted pregnancies is a good first step. Right?

Apparently not. At least not if it means equipping the state’s young people with the best possible information on how to avoid trouble in the first place.

House Bill 388, state Rep. Katrina Jackson’s effort to severely restrict abortion clinics’ operations in Louisiana, is barrelling toward Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk and a certain thumbs up from the anti-abortion governor. But for the third time in five years, state Rep. Patricia Smith’s proposal to require that sex education — including information about contraception — be taught in public schools has hit a brick wall.

That brick wall was the House Education Committee, which voted 10-3 to keep allowing schools to keep students in the dark. The strict party-line tally on House Bill 369, with only Democrats in support and only Republicans and one independent in opposition, actually represented a step back from the last time Smith tried to pass a sex ed bill. In 2012, the Baton Rouge Democrat was able to muster nine supportive votes, although that was still short of the majority needed.

Despite the lopsided loss, Smith’s proposal was hardly radical. Current law already allows schools to offer sex education on a voluntary basis. The bill would have mandated “age appropriate” instruction from fourth grade on. It would have included information about contraception but stressed that abstinence is the most reliable way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It would have banned advocacy of abortion. After a representative from the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops argued that a provision in the bill would have paved the way for schools to distribute contraceptives, Smith agreed to amend that part out. It also would have allowed parents who object to pull their kids out of class.

Critics argued that such discussions should happen among families, not in a school setting. But Smith said that approach, in terms of public health, is simply unrealistic.

It’s not just teens who are getting pregnant and contracting STDs in huge numbers, she said. It’s happening to preteens too.

“We have a problem in this state that needs to be addressed,” she noted.

Her goal, she said, is to help students “make responsible decisions about sexuality and relationships.”

If there’s any consolation for those in the information-is-good camp, it’s that another Smith bill, this one to allow the Department of Education to ask teens sex-related questions in a health-focused behavioral survey, did pass the committee’s muster.

It’s a start, I guess, or it will be if it makes it through the process.

Still, Wednesday’s vote marked the second time this session that Smith tried, and failed, to get her colleagues to acknowledge the way people actually live their lives — not the way they, or the socially conservative interest groups that hold so much sway in the Capitol, might want them to.

She also was behind the bill to finally repeal the state’s unconstitutional sodomy prohibition. Like the sex ed bill, this too was motivated by a real-life problem — in this case, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office’s former habit of arresting men under the law and tossing them in jail, only to see the district attorney refuse to bring charges.

Rather than clear up the confusion, the House voted overwhelmingly against taking an unenforceable law off the books.

Once again, so much for the idea of addressing real problems and seeking reasonable, practical solutions. When the subject is sex and sexuality, the Louisiana Legislature prefers to abstain.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.