RALEIGH, N.C. — Should sex education in North Carolina public schools go beyond an abstinence-until-marriage curriculum to include comprehensive information about what teens should know if they decide to have sex?
House Bill 88
, which recently passed in the state House, would require school systems to offer a second curriculum that would also teach methods of birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
Parents of students in seventh through ninth grades would be able to choose either curriculum – the first being that abstinence until marriage is the only certain way to prevent teen pregnancy – or they could opt out of the program.
Parents were also asked which topics were important – 99.6 percent rated as important the transmission and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS and 97.1 percent the effectiveness and failure rates of birth control methods, including condoms.
Where parents disagree is what should be taught.
"To say as a general rule (that) nobody should have sex until they get married is unrealistic," said Leslie Sheitman, a Cary mother of three – two of whom are in a public elementary school and one in a private middle school.
A child neurologist, Sheitman supplies her children with age-appropriate books on sex-related issues. She believes schools should supplement that by offering a choice of a health curriculum that honestly lays out abstinence, intimacy and contraception.
Without medically accurate information, she said, she believes "kids will talk to each other, and the misinformation will spread like wildfire."
"I don't think teaching them about preventing pregnancies is going to give anybody ideas they don't already have," she said.
But opponents of the bill, disagree, saying that offering a more comprehensive sex education curriculum would promote sex, as well as alternative sexual behaviors.
"I don't think it's an effective program if you have an 11-to-14-year-old kid using condoms," said Cindy Winter-Harley, a mother of three boys.
As an employee of LifeCare Pregnancy Center
in Raleigh, Winter-Hartley said she has spoken to thousands of adolescents in the Wake County Public School System about the emotional complications of sex and the benefits of waiting until marriage.
"It's not just a simple pat on the head of 'OK guys, don't do it,'" she said. "There's so much more to sex."
Winter-Hartley said she has received stacks of notes and letters from students struggling with sexual issues who have thanked her for her abstinence message.
But Sheitman counters that North Carolina's high teen pregnancy rate – 63 pregnancies per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in 2007, according to the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign – proves that the abstinence message, alone, is not working. She also points out that, under state legislation and the proposed bill, parents can choose.
"If you don't want your child to learn any of this stuff, they don't have to," Sheitman said. "Why should that option for other people be something you're trying to prevent?"
Winter-Hartley worries abstinence until marriage would get lost in the lessons of safe sex.
"The best thing we can do is continually reinforce the message that you are worth waiting for," she said.