The Louisiana House of Representatives struck down a bill this week that would have allowed the state Department of Education to ask teens questions about their sexual health.
State law currently says that “students shall not be tested, quizzed, or surveyed about their personal or family beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion.” The new bill would have amended this to make exceptions for surveys about teens’ “risk behavior associated with chronic health conditions, including those related to sexual health.” Despite the public health framing, many members of the house were concerned that asking young people about sex would encourage curiosity and sexual behavior.
The survey in question is party of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) System conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC works with states and cities across the country in an attempt to get an accurate picture of the risk young people are taking in their daily lives. The survey asks students about a whole host of topics, including seat belt and bike helmet use, violence, guns, alcohol, and drugs. It includes approximately a dozen questions related to sexual health—whether students have ever had intercourse, if they have had intercourse in the last three months, if they used condoms or other forms of birth control when they had intercourse, and whether they used alcohol or other drugs when they had intercourse.
The survey has been conducted every two years since 1991, and public health experts rely on it to give them an understanding of what young people are doing, let them compare young people in different states, and help them identify trends over time. Louisiana participates in the YRBS but the only question about sexual health that students in that state answer is about whether they ever learned about HIV or AIDS in school. (Twenty-five percent of students in Louisiana say they never learned about this topic in school, compared to 16 percent nationwide.)
Rep. Patricia Smith (D-Baton Rouge), the sponsor of the bill, said in her remarks that surveying teens on these other topics—like smoking and drinking—has led to better prevention programs and that the state should be doing the same thing for sex. Other lawmakers, however, were nervous that asking teens what they are doing sexually would give them ideas. Rep. Lenar Whitney (R-Houma) asked, “Won’t we desensitize children when asking them about sexual activity?”
Smith countered with stats about teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the state and argued that teens are clearly already desensitized. In fact, Louisiana’s teen pregnancy rate of 80 pregnancies per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19 is higher than the national rate of 68 pregnancies per 1,000. The birth rate for teens is higher as well, with 45 births per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19, compared to 31 births nationwide. The state also has an alarmingly high rate of HIV infection among young people, with 22.1 HIV cases diagnosed per 100,000 young people ages 13 to 19, compared to a national rate of just seven cases.
Though there is little if any research on the effect of taking a survey, research into sexuality education programs has shown that talking about sex with young people does not encourage sexual behavior. Young people in programs that talk about both abstinence and contraception are no more likely to have sex than their peers not in the program, they do not have sex earlier than their peers, they do not have sex more frequently, and they do not have more sexual partners. In facts, students who get these messages are more likely to delay sex and more likely to use condoms and other contraceptive methods when they do become sexually active.
Despite this research and the poor statistics on adolescent sexual health in Louisiana, the bill failed by a vote of 55 to 38.
And this was not the state’s only legislative blow to sex education in the last few weeks. On May 14, a bill designed to expand sexuality education failed to pass in committee. The bill, also sponsored by Rep. Smith, would have required all schools to provide sex ed (currently it is optional) and would have required that such education be comprehensive, medically accurate, and age appropriate. The bill had been introduced three times in the last five years and failed every time. This time the House Education Committee voted 10 to 3 against the measure.
In contrast, another bill about sex education passed the Louisiana Senate Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday. This one restricts who can provide sex education in the schools. The bill, which passed the house last month, is intended to prohibit organizations like Planned Parenthood from conducting sexuality education classes in the school. As RH Reality Check recently reported, the bill’s house sponsor, Rep. Frank Hoffman (R-West Monroe), held a press conference attended by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in which he said that if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, Louisiana already has a law in place that would immediately outlaw abortion. He added, “But until then, we want to make it as difficult as possible for the people doing that. This bill takes another step in that by not allowing these in-services in schools.”
The bill is supported by Louisiana Right to Life and the Bioethics Defense Fund. Benjamin Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, said in a statement that the bill is needed “to reassure Louisiana families that their children in state-funded elementary and secondary schools are not being targeted by individuals and organizations who have financial incentives to sell abortion.”
The bill still has to be considered by the full state senate.