My case for HB 363 (sex ed bill)

March 13, 2012 by Paul Mero

The new sex education proposal, HB 363, has drawn lots of attention (and emotion) on all sides. And for good reason. HB 363 obviously represents more than a sex education proposal. It represents another front in the culture war over Utah values, how we see ourselves as human beings, how we view the proper role of government and, ultimately, how we view freedom.

This is my case for HB 363.

The most important idea to understand about lasting freedom is that it requires us to be our better selves. Most of my arguments with libertarians are over this point. Freedom is not simply “individual liberty” or “economic freedom.” Those qualities are important components of freedom, but incomplete. A complete definition is that freedom is the sum of liberty and virtue. Freedom requires human beings to be their better selves. Of course, implied is that we know what it means to be a human being. 

A second important point to understand about lasting freedom is that government should be limited. But not in the way many people understand the meaning of “limited government.” To help human beings be our better selves, we surround ourselves with social encouragements: family, friends, religion, community groups, philanthropic and civic groups, educational opportunities, etc.

We also create governments. For instance, becoming our better selves requires people living in community to create rules about how we’re going to get along. This is the reason we have a system of justice in America. If we didn’t care about becoming our better selves, in the name of lasting freedom, we’d simply revert to the Wild West rule of law – every man for himself.

In this context, government has a limited role to play in helping us preserve our lasting freedom. That’s the meaning of limited government. That’s the proper role of government. Government has a limited role in helping us become our better selves. Many legal scholars refer to this role as “educative” – meaning the law not only restrains, it educates.

So how does sex education in public schools (i.e., government schools) fit into this broader theory of freedom?

Simple: a society interested in lasting freedom requires human beings to responsibly procreate and avoid irresponsible choices that burden society. Responsible procreation, as we’ve discovered over millennia, happens within the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman.

In other words, responsible sex education in our public schools must be set in the context of no sexual relations outside of the bonds of marriage. And that is the point of HB 363.

Critics of HB 363 insist the purpose of sex education in our public schools is to prevent, as much as possible, the unfortunate consequences of sex outside of marriage. It’s an “insurance policy” of sorts, they insist. They say it’s the only reasonable thing to do given that most Utah youth will have premarital sex. And, after all, if we can keep our youth from experiencing the ill consequences of pre-marital sex, why wouldn’t we?

There is a charm to that argument, especially if one doesn’t believe in the freedom construct I just shared. In other words, if the goal is simply to “sell insurance” to our youth in public schools, why not “sell insurance”?

The critic’s slogan is “education, not ignorance.” So, in that spirit, let me educate these critics.

Selling kids an “insurance policy” regarding premarital sexual relations doesn’t protect any youth from sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. The universal and public availability of contraception does not guarantee that any youth will use it. The only consequence-free sexual relation between youth is no sexual relation at all.

Yes, premarital sex is a reality. So, too, are sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies even when contraception is at hand – quite literally meaning that the effective mitigation of these ill consequences from premarital sex is about the “choice” youth make, not about the “means” whereby they have sex after they’ve made the choice. Comprehensive sex education is all about the means. Abstinence-only sex education is all about the choice.

This is the point where our understanding of the proper role of government becomes relevant. Sex education in our public schools should address the choice, not the means. Furthermore, it should prioritize helping us to become our better selves, not our selfish selves. Comprehensive sex education is all about our selfish selves (i.e., attempting to mitigate the consequences of poor choices). Abstinence-only sex education is all about our better selves (i.e., attempting to influence the choices youth make).

We don’t teach youth how to drink liquor, not even responsibly. Nor do we teach youth how to consume narcotics, not even responsibly. We tell them not to. Teaching youth to have “safe sex” is like teaching youth to “drink responsibly.” Can people have “safe sex”? Yes. Can people “drink responsibly”? Yes. But in both cases we don’t teach youth to do either. We tell them don’t do it at all.

We are not arguing about the availability of contraception in a free society. We’re arguing about the availability of contraception in our public (government) schools. While I have my personal opinion about the work Planned Parenthood does, my concern about Planned Parenthood is in the context of government-funded and endorsed activities. The fact is that anyone can visit Planned Parenthood, in person or online, and get whatever “education” they need about sex. The question for us is should our public schools provide under force of law what Planned Parenthood provides voluntarily? My answer is no, for all of the reasons I’ve articulated.

Lastly, our governments, in their proper role, must be encouraging the best expectations and personal responsibility within our youth. Comprehensive sex education, as has been so clearly defined by the critics of HB 363 themselves, caters to a culture of dysfunction. It assumes the worst about us as human beings (i.e., that we will unavoidably choose to make poor choices) and it serves up attempts to mitigate those consequences by seeking to perfect our “skills” within the dysfunction.

Think of the timing of this educational process. Both comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education are premised on educating youth prior to a choice being made. Even most supporters of comprehensive sex education aren’t cheering on youth to have premarital sex.

Proponents of comprehensive sex education (i.e., opponents of HB 363) are attempting to influence the choices of youth in a good way, just as proponents of abstinence-only sex education are. The difference is that comprehensive sex education undermines, or at least severely contradicts, that attempt to influence those choices. Because law is educative and public schools are government schools, youth receive a mixed and confusing message under comprehensive sex education: Public authorities tell me no, but then go out of their way to show me how. That contradiction is a misuse of government, in my opinion, and certainly an injustice (even an insult) to our youth.

Abstinence-only sex education, as embodied in HB 363, is the only just, rational and consistent way to influence the choices of youth in public schools about proper and healthy sexual relations. It is the only justifiable instruction in such matters if lasting freedom is an important consideration to us.