As abortion ban nears, some want Indiana to expand abstinence-only sex ed

As Indiana moves forward with an abortion ban, a small group of Democratic lawmakers and advocates has been hoping to expand the state’s sex education curriculum in an effort to reduce unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.

But the narrow window during the 2022 special session to broaden the state’s limited sexual health standards beyond abstinence-only instruction has all but shut. Lawmakers last week rejected an amendment on sex education and this week dropped other language on improving access to family planning.

“If we’re going to ban abortions, the first thing we need to do is stop unintended pregnancies,” said Kristin Adams, president and CEO of the Indiana Health Council, which provides family planning services in Indianapolis.

Indiana doesn’t require public schools to teach sex education, except for lessons on HIV and AIDS. The only requirement for schools that do teach human sexuality is that they teach abstinence as the single surefire way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Even if the legislature were to broaden sex education in this session or in the future, the state would need to adopt new standards on health education. Any change would also likely draw vocal opposition from some Republican lawmakers and groups who believe sex education is a parent’s purview.

Still, advocates like Adams believe more thorough sex education can still emphasize abstinence as the best option for teenagers while providing them with medically accurate information about sex in order to seek family planning and health services as adults.

“They are walking out in the world without enough information,” she told lawmakers in testimony on July 26. “They don’t understand the ideas of contraception, or when eggs fertilize.”

Indeed, a 2021 survey of youth risk behavior by the Indiana Department of Health found the portion of schools that report teaching students about sexual health topics has declined.

In 2020, 41% of schools had teachers explain the efficacy of condoms to sixth through eighth graders, compared with 57% a decade earlier. Similarly, 69% of schools reported teachers teaching middle grades about how HIV and other STDs are spread, compared with 94% in 2010.

House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 2, two bills accompanying the abortion legislation, would authorize grants to programs that expand access to contraception, but would exclude programs that provide contraception to students or to minors without the consent of their parents.

But the bills briefly had more potential for sex education. The original language of SB 2 sought to fund programs that “support pregnancy planning, including addressing barriers to long-acting reversible contraception.”

Rep. Chris Campbell (D-West Lafayette) also proposed an amendment to HB 1001 that would have expanded sex education standards to include instruction about the effectiveness of contraceptives alongside abstinence.

The curriculum would teach “respect for marriage and committed relationships” and “be appropriate for pupils who choose to be abstinent and for those who have been or are sexually active.”

The amendment failed in the House Ways and Means Committee, with Chair Rep. Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville) noting that sex education had been discussed and rejected before, and didn’t belong in HB 1001.

Campbell disagreed. She said in an interview that children have a right to accurate information about their health, so they’re prepared to make informed decisions in the future.

“There are a lot of false impressions about the idea of using comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically appropriate sex education, a notion that it’s going to encourage children to engage in sexual activity, but the research does not indicate that at all,” Campbell said.

Campbell said it’s clear that sex education legislation won’t pass with the legislature’s current makeup, but that it’s important to keep trying given voters’ support for a more comprehensive approach.

“If we want to reduce unwanted, unplanned pregnancies, we need to educate people better,” Campbell said.

Sen. Chris Garten (R-Charlestown), author of SB 2, declined to comment for this story. Rep. Sharon Negele (R-Attica), author of HB 1001, did not return a request for comment.

Rep. Sue Errington (D-Muncie), who has brought bills on sex education in previous legislative sessions, said the state has an obligation to use the tools at hand to prevent unintended pregnancies should the abortion bill pass.

That would include sex education and better access to contraceptives, said Errington, who worked the public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. Without a standard sexual health curriculum in the state, young people receive different information depending on where they go to school, whether that’s some sex ed, abstinence-only sex ed, or no sex ed at all, she said.

“It’s going to be effective in helping young people find the words and the knowledge to delay sexual intercourse, and at least if they don’t delay, to know how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and STDs,” Errington said.

Adams of the Indiana Health Council said that sex education helps protect children’s safety and much like math skills, begins with basic concepts in elementary school and builds on those ideas through college.

Lessons might begin with teaching children the correct terms for their body parts, as well as the concept of personal space and the skills to say no to an invasion of that space. In middle school, classes might introduce hormonal changes, while high school classes discuss the biology of conception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Writing new, clear standards would help guard against any personal bias on the part of health educators—whether they believe in abstinence or not, she added.

Adams said around 10% of the people who seek services at her family planning center are teenagers, many of whom come with parental support.

But others haven’t received any sex education at home or school, and instead are seeking help because they’ve come across inaccurate information on the internet or through peers.

“They’re confused, and they’ve heard something, and they don’t know what to believe. They think, ’I kissed a boy, I must be pregnant,’” Adams said.

Students’ questions run the gamut, said Tammie Carter, CEO of LifeSmart Youth, an organization that provides health education in around 80 schools statewide, from why wet dreams happen to how twin babies are born.

At schools that invite the organization, health educators teach for five to 10 days. Topics in the fourth grade include puberty, while fifth grade covers the basics of reproduction, and older grades discuss healthy relationships, Carter said.

The organization emphasizes abstinence as 100% effective in avoiding pregnancy, but it does not provide abstinence-only sex ed, which Carter said wouldn’t allow educators to provide medically-accurate information about conception or STDs.

“When 30% of high schoolers have engaged in sex, we can’t afford to do abstinence only,” Carter said.

Carter’s believes most of the debate around sex education centers on how early is too early to start teaching. But as menstruation can begin in late elementary or early middle school, Carter said it’s critical for girls to receive timely information.

“Why would we wait until high school to tell her that her body is functioning in a way that she could become pregnant?” Carter said.

Carter also said schools pulled back from the program last year as debate raged over a bill that sought to ban a series of “divisive concepts” from the classroom. Though the bill didn’t pass, the political backlash cowed some schools.

Carter said that with more funding, she would expand the organization’s work educating younger students about human development as well as teenagers about dating violence—which has risen in some forms.

The proportion of female students in Indiana who reported being forced to have sexual intercourse has increased from 14.5% in 2011 to 17% in 2021, according to the Department of Health survey.

Overall, Carter said she’d like to see the state move away from abstinence-only education, which she characterized as antiquated.

“The right step is more policy and funding in support of youth prevention and youth sex education,” Carter said. “The responsible thing to do is expand the education that young people need to make good sound decisions about their bodies.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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