By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press
JACKSON — By the time Lori Roberts was 18, she had given birth to three children, but she believes her choices about sex would have been different if she had learned about the subject in school.
Roberts, now a 32-year-old mother of seven, urged Mississippi lawmakers on Wednesday to pass a comprehensive sex education law that goes beyond just teaching about abstinence in schools.
“There’s a pervasive belief that students already access this information on their own,” Roberts told members of House Public Health and Education committees. “My experience is that they do not.”
The issue of sex education has been a contentious topic at the Capitol. Many conservative lawmakers in the Bible Belt state contend sex should be discussed at home, not in class. Others have said there’s a need for students to be informed about how to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, especially since the state has the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rate.
“You can almost mathematically figure out what not talking about this subject and not having some comprehensive program is costing the citizens in quality of life, mental health, health care. You can go on and on,” said House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Under current law, school districts are not mandated to teach comprehensive sex education or abstinence. However, districts do have the option to teach abstinence. If districts want to teach more than abstinence, they must receive school board approval.
Holland said Mississippi could be eligible for federal funding if state law allowed districts to teach more than just abstinence.
Roberts — a Jackson resident whose 13-year-old daughter also spoke at the hearing in support of sex education — grew up in Indiana, where comprehensive sex education was lacking in classrooms. Her children are students in Mississippi schools.
Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer, said Mississippi also has the country’s highest gonorrhea and chlamydia rates.
Currier said schools should have the option to go beyond abstinence because many youth are sexual active, and “we shouldn’t abandon the kids who are having sex.”
But Dr. Freda Bush, an obstetrician/gynecologist who has studied the issue, made the case for abstinence. Bush cited research that showed teens who abstained from sex made better grades in school than those who were sexually active.
“Abstinence-centered education would be the best choice,” Bush said. “Our government has a significant impact on the mores and the activities people are involved in.”
The bills are House Bill 507 and Senate Bill 2222.