Tennessee legislature passes abstinence-only sex education bill

[JURIST] The Tennessee House of Representatives [official website] has passed a bill [HB 3621, PDF; bill summary] that augments the state's abstinence-only sex education curriculum to allow parents to sue school teachers or organizations that promote "gateway sexual activity." The bill went to the governor for consideration on Tuesday. The bill defines "gateway sexual activity" as "sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior." The stated purpose of the bill is to promote sexual risk avoidance, provide medically-accurate information, discuss the challenges that single teen mothers face and to "[d]iscuss the interrelationship between teen sexual activity and exposure to other risk behaviors such as smoking, underage drinking, drug use, criminal activity, dating violence, and sexual aggression." Critics of the bill argue that what "gateway sexual activity" is and what it means to demonstrate "gateway sexual activity" are so vaguely defined [TriCities report] that even holding hands or hugging could constitute an actionable offense.

The debate between abstinence-only sex education and comprehensive sex education remains a controversial topic in the US. Thirty states received federal funding [SIECUS report] for abstinence-only sex education programs in 2010, including 14 of the 16 southern states. Critics of comprehensive sex education programs argue that it promotes sexual activity in teens [PBS Religion & Ethics report] and leads to physical and emotional distress. Critics of abstinence-only education argue that it just does not work and point out that teen pregnancy rates are the highest in states with abstinence-only education [ThinkProgress report]. Other studies have shown that even accounting for socioeconomic status, teen education level, teen ethnicity and availability of Medicaid, increased emphasis on abstinence-only education is positively correlated [study] with teenage pregnancy and birth rates. US President Barack Obama [official website] initially ended [People's World report] former president George W. Bush's abstinence-only sex education policy, but in May abstinence-only education was re-added [ThinkProgress report] to the Department of Health and Human Services' [official website] evidence-based pregnancy prevention program list [text].

 

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