Whose right to sex education?

The principle of equality for children is fundamentally at odds with the American interpretation of the principle of equality for adults. We defer parenting to parents at the cost of equality for their children. This happens in myriad ways, lots of which involve education. Just as adults are free to donate thousands of dollars to just our neighborhood school’s PTA, to benefit our children and evade responsibility for those of our non-neighbors, we may be free to dictate the terms of the education our children receive.

The right of the parents to control their children is great when it’s great. And the denial of that right is often egregious when it’s taken away from parents who are disenfranchised or oppressed, to the detriment of parents and children alike. But when it’s exercised poorly, the right of parental control is too-often protected by law.

Take sex education. Most states let parents “opt” their children out of what little sex education is still offered. A new report from the Guttmacher Institute lists 37 states and the District of Columbia that permit parental opt-outs for education about sexually-transmitted infections (3 more require affirmative consent before any education on the subject may be delivered). And, before you think better of those without opt-out provisions – most of them only teach abstinence anyway. (Even when parents “opt in,” what do they get? Teachers may have permission to teach about contraception while being blocked from its “advocacy or encouragement.”)

In the last 15 years, the public provision of real sex education has been drastically curtailed in this country. In the short period from 1995 to 2002 the percentage of adolescents receiving formal instruction on birth control methods dropped from 81% to 66% for boys, and 87% to 70% for girls. This was driven by the political movement for “abstinence only” education, abetted by $1.9 billion in federal and mandatory state matching funds.

What did we get for $1.9 billion? Nothing good. Abstinence only education has been shown to have no effect on how much teenagers have sex – none. It also has no effect on the number of partners teenagers have if they do have sex, and no effect on birth control use, pregnancy rates, or sexually transmitted disease infection. Not that these programs don’t accomplish anything. Like virginity pledges, abstinence-only programs do help spread myths that discourage condom use. The opt-out provisions for sex education are intended to permit parents to raise their children according to a particular moral code, and their children’s free access to lifesaving knowledge is a secondary concern.

The last year has seen progress toward broadening sex education, including federal efforts to break the political stranglehold of the abstinence-only movement. But even where such reforms are on the table, as in Wisconsin, more comprehensive sex education still includes a parental opt-out provision. Maybe this is politically unavoidable. But shouldn’t children have rights to real education that are not alienable?

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