The federal Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (the “Act”), introduced on February 15, 2013, is a comprehensive and inclusive sex education bill, intended to replace what many studies indicate are ineffective and medically inaccurate abstinence-only programs. If passed, the Act would provide five-year grants for comprehensive sex education to state and local education agencies, nonprofit organizations and nonprofit or public universities to fund sex-ed programs. Funding would also be provided for teacher training on sex education. Additionally, federal funding would be prohibited for any programs that withhold information about HIV, are medically inaccurate or proven ineffective, promote gender stereotypes, are insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of LGBT youth, or are inconsistent with ethical imperatives of medicine and public health. Priority would go to programs serving communities with high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or sexual assault. Similar bills have been introduced in the past several years but have not passed.
Recent data shows that the United States still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, and recent reports have shown that teen birth rates are on the rise. In 2009, there were approximately 19 million new cases of Sexually Transmitted Infections, almost half of them occurring in young people between 15 to 24 years old, and young people accounted for 39% of all new HIV infections in the same year.
The bill requires any programs funded under the Act to emphasize emotional skills and the development of “healthy attitudes and values” about issues like body image, gender identity and sexual orientation. All teaching would be “age and developmentally appropriate.” However, several provisions are likely to remain controversial, including a section requiring that curricula refer interested students to local clinics for more information about sexual and reproductive health. In practice, those clinics could include Planned Parenthood centers as in many areas those are the only clinics available to young people looking for that type of information.
Additionally, the Act also requires that programs report certain gathered information from their students to federal health officials in order to evaluate programs and consider any additions/changes that need to be made in the future. The requested information would include age of first intercourse, number of sexual partners and contraceptive use.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), one of the sponsors of the Act, explained that research has shown programs that teach abstinence along with contraception “effectively delay the onset of sexual intercourse, reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase contraceptive use among teens. These programs also reduce unintended pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.”