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Mississippi Sex Ed Bill Takes a Shot at Improving State Policy, Supporting Adolescent Health

Just weeks after the start of the Mississippi 2011 State Legislative Session on January 4, 2011, there have been six different bills introduced related to providing sex education in public schools, including four bills in the House of Representatives (HB 507, HB 965, HB 999, and HB 1091) and two in the Senate (SB 2135 and SB 2222). Among the six bills, five have already died in committee. Only one, House Bill 999, passed out of committee and will be heard by the full House.
Mississippi ranks first in rates of teen birth, Chlamydia infection, and gonorrhea infection among adolescents ages 15–19 in the United States.[1] State law does not require school districts to teach sex education or provide instruction in HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or pregnancy prevention. However, if taught, “abstinence education” must be the standard for instruction and it must stress abstinence only until marriage. This requires that students be taught “the likely negative psychological and physical effects of not abstaining [from sexual activity]” and that “a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the only appropriate setting for sexual intercourse,” among other similar lessons. Under the law, local school boards have the authority to implement a sex education curriculum that does not stress abstinence only until marriage, but such instruction must not contradict any of the tenets of “abstinence education” outlined in the law.[2]
House Bill 999 includes similar measures to a sex education bill introduced last year, House Bill 837, which passed the House but later died in the Senate Education and Public Health and Welfare committees. HB 999 expands upon the concepts included in last year’s bill and offers definitions for the terms “medically accurate” and “age-appropriate.”
Like HB 837, this year’s bill would require each school district to implement either “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus” education. Such instruction would have to be incorporated by the start of the 2012–2013 school year and each district’s curriculum would have to be approved by the state department of education. The bill uses the definition for “abstinence education” already included in state law to define “abstinence-only” instruction. In contrast, “abstinence-plus” education is defined as consisting of all the components included in “abstinence-only” instruction and must also include, but not be limited to, information on the use of condoms and contraception, STDs and HIV, and STD/HIV prevention. The curriculum also may be expanded to include additional topics approved by the department of education, although no additional topics are outlined in the bill.[3]
House Bill 999 would require that all instruction be medically accurate and developmentally and age appropriate. In addition, it would require school districts to provide notification to parents; and it includes an opt-out provision that would allow parents or guardians to excuse their child from instruction. While the original version of the bill also included a measure to institute a state teen pregnancy prevention program supported by, and in compliance with, the federal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), this measure was stricken from the version of the bill that passed out of committee.[4]
“The dire sexual and reproductive health issues, and unmet need for comprehensive information and services, that young people face in Mississippi makes it crucial for the legislature to amend current state law so that all its young people are receiving the information they need to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “It is disappointing that the members of the House Education Committee decided against a measure that would have allocated the state’s PREP funds to help address this issue and aided the state in improving the public health of its residents. We urge the Mississippi State Legislature to uphold its duty to protect the well-being of Mississippians and enact legislation that will move away from fear- and shame-based messages and address the prevention and relationship needs of all Mississippi youth.”

[1]Joyce A. Martin et. al, Births: Final Data for 2006National Vital Statistics Reports 59/1 (Hyattsville, MD: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 2010), accessed 28 January 2011, <>, table 12;  see also “Wonder Database: Selected STDs by Age, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender, 1996–2008 Results,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 June 2009, accessed 28 January 2010, <>.
[3]Mississippi Legislature, 2011 Regular Session, House Bill 999, introduced 17 January 2011, accessed 28 January 2011, <>.
[4]Mississippi Legislature, 2011 Regular Session, House Bill 999, Committee Substitute, amended 27 January 2011, accessed 28 January 2011, <>.

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