The bill to update sex education in South Carolina public schools now making its way through the state Senate is a victory for both good health and common sense.
The Senate Education Committee is considering a bill that would change the state’s 26-year-old sex-education law by requiring the teaching of medically accurate health information. The bill also would withhold 1 percent of school districts’ state funding until they file reports on what information is taught and in which grades in their districts.
Districts already are required to file such reports, but many fail to do so. Threatening to withhold money is designed to improve compliance.
This bill should not be at all controversial. Who could object to teaching students medically accurate information?
What would the alternative be? Teaching them old wives tales and misinformation to frighten them into chastity?
Unfortunately, the idea of providing accurate information seems to bother some critics. Opponents of this bill say the only message students should receive in school is to not have sex until marriage.
But sex education classes essentially can do both, advising abstinence while also providing accurate health information.
The Senate bill and a similar one already passed by the House make no changes to the current requirement that abstinence until marriage must be strongly emphasized. That remains an appropriate message; abstinence still is the only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy.
But the bills also acknowledge that students are entitled to accurate, medically sound information with which to make knowledgable decisions on their own. And that, too, is essential.
In 1991, more than 9,500 in South Carolina ages 15 to 19 – or 73 teens per 1,000 – got pregnant, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. By 2012, the latest year available, the number had dropped to 5,500 teens, for a rate of 37 per 1,000.
That represents significant progress. But the rate still is too high.
Teen pregnancies can be costly to both teens and taxpayers. Pregnant teens are less likely to complete their educations and, therefore, more likely to be unemployed and dependent on government aid.
In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing teens with accurate medical information also is a good way to reduce abortions and sexually transmitted diseases. If teens choose not to abstain, at least they will know something about contraception and protection from STDs.
And, like it or not, many teens will choose not to abstain, no matter how fervently sex-ed teachers, parents and religious leaders advise them otherwise.
The original House bill had required that, by 2020, sex education teachers must be certified to teach the course, which often is taught by someone with no background in science. That requirement was removed to get the bill through the House, but teen pregnancy prevention advocates have asked senators to restore the provision.
We think those who teach sex education should be certified to do so. The task shouldn’t be left to any teacher with an open slot in his or her schedule.
But the provision isn’t critical. For now, updating the law to require that schools teach medically accurate information would be a big leap forward.
The best way to ensure that fewer teens get pregnant is to arm them with the information they need to make the right choices.