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Gov. Herbert Vetoes Abstinence Bill in Utah

by guest blogger Andrew Ujifusa

It looked as though Utah's legislature was moving in tandem with Wisconsin in mandating abstinence-only sex education this year, but Gov. Gary Herbert changed the narrative by vetoing that legislation March 16 in the name of parent choice. (And, no, this is not a story about charter schools and vouchers!)

House Bill 363, which was originally sponsored in the Utah House of Representatives by Rep. Bill Wright, a Republican, would have required that sex education programs and instruction stress the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage as the only certain way to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases.

The courses would have also been required to focus on "personal skills" that encourage individuals to be sexually abstinent until marriage, and banned discussion of the intricacies of sexual intercourse and homosexuality.

Utah law now allows factual information on contraceptives to be taught, although courses cannot advocate for their use. The law would also have abolished such instruction.

"It takes us from an abstinence-emphasis education to an abstinence-only education," Utah Department of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said of the failed measure Monday.

Local boards of education would also have been allowed not to provide sex education courses under the legislation.

In a statement on his website, Herbert, a Republican, explained his veto by saying that the measure would unfairly deprive parents of the choices concerning if and how their children would attend classes on human sexuality.

Under current law, Utah's parents must sign an "opt-in" form before their children can attend any and all such sex education classes.

A data study by the Salt Lake Tribune published on March 3 showed that nearly all students in the state's largest districts opt in to the sex education courses—in one district that includes Salt Lake City, for example, only 0.2 percent of high school students enrolled in health classes opted out of the sex education courses.

"If HB 363 were to become law, parents would no longer have the option the overwhelming majority is currently choosing for their children," Herbert stated. "I am unwilling to conclude that the state knows better than Utah's parents as to what is best for their children."

UPDATE: In comments yesterday, Utah PTA president-elect Liz Zentner indicated parents in the Beehive State are happy with the balance that Utah's sex education law currently strikes that allows their children to get information on contraception without any advocacy for it. (She stressed that the state PTA was not in favor of liberalizing the sex education Utah students now receive.)

"We have to work against these groups sometimes because they go too far," Zentner said of conservative groups that pushed the bill.

Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune did a nice piece on the situation yesterday that raises the question of just how politicized the decision was for Herbert. His decision came right after the state GOP presidential caucus, ensuring that delegates would not get the chance to slam Herbert for his veto, timing that did not go unnoticed in Utah political circles. He was also accused of worrying more about polls than principle.

The Tribune quoted Republican Rep. Ken Sumsion, a GOP challenger to Herbert who voted for the bill, saying, "We have certain values and, as a parent, I think I have a right not to have my children exposed to certain other lifestyles in schools."

There doesn't appear to much sentiment that legislators will push to override that veto, although Sumsion did refer to the bill as the most controversial legislation of the 2012 session.

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