on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Bush and Kerry states are worlds apart on sex ed in schools


GEORGE W Bush and John Kerry are both American but they come from two different countries. Anyone who doubts this should consider a pair of matching rows now convulsing their home states, on the subject of school sex education.

In Massachusetts, home state of Senator Kerry, debate is raging over whether school "sex ed" lessons should include descriptions of gay safe sex.

Meanwhile, in President Bush's beloved Texas, conservatives on the state's powerful board of education are poised to pull off a cherished goal: the selection of a new generation of sex education textbooks for teenagers, whose sole guidance on sex is: don't have any until marriage.

A bastion of Subaru-driving, tofu-eating, whole wheat liberalism, Massachusetts has been toppling taboos this year, recently legalising same-sex marriage. Now some homosexual teachers are arguing that school curricula need to catch up.

Brian Camenker, head of the state's conservative Parents' Rights Coalition, cited a recent radio interview in which a teacher from the town of Brookline talked proudly of teaching 14-year-olds about lesbian practices, including the use of "sex toys".

He said: "Even in a whacked-out liberal city like Brookline, if the average parent knew this is what they're teaching, there'd be a riot."

His group backs a new law that would make it easier for Massachusetts parents to keep their children away from sexuality-related events and classes.

A very different battle is under way in Bush Country. The Texas board of education is vetting four new health textbooks, which include courses on sex education for 15- and 16-year-olds.

Bowing to the conservative doctrine of "abstinence-only" sex education, three of the four make no mention of birth control methods, whether the pill, condoms or anything else.

Instead, they repeatedly state that chastity is the only sure route to avoiding pregnancy and disease.

One textbook adds the advice that students "get plenty of rest" to avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases. "When you're tired," it notes, "it's hard to think."

The fourth book makes a brief reference to condoms, but only to warn against buying foreign-made contraceptives. Advocates of "abstinence-only" education include Mr Bush.

Under his presidency, federal funds for "abstinence only" education have tripled, from an annual pounds 54 million to pounds 150 million next year.

Supporters argue such self-censorship is the key to keeping the young chaste.

They argue, passionately, against offering any additional information.

Jim Sedlak, vice-president of the American Life League, testified at recent public hearings in Texas in favour of the new books. "Once you tell children how to avoid getting pregnant, you're basically giving them a way to have sex without fear," he told The Daily Telegraph. "You're giving them a licence to have sex."

The official adoption of a textbook by Texas is a huge prize for academic publishers, said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the liberal Texas Freedom Network.

Texas spent pounds 136 million on textbooks in the year to May 31, making it the second largest market after California. Books approved by Texas are then bought by smaller states across the country. The proposed Texas textbooks will come with teacher's editions and paperback supplements offering birth control information, for use in more liberal jurisdictions.

Mr Quinn accuses the Texas board, an elected body, of having a long record of hard-Right meddling and even banning a drawing of a breast in a textbook.

Liberals note that Texas has the nation's highest rate of births to teenage girls aged 15 to 17, though the state legislature mandated "abstinence-based" education in schools nine years ago.

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