TCLA's School Accountability Report Card Series: Features: 5/6

Access to Comprehensive

Sexuality Education and Reproductive Rights:

An Interview with Rocio Córdoba

Photo: Rocio Córdoba

Schools can promote safety and health by enabling young people to make informed decisions about their sexuality. However, in order to do this, teens need access to comprehensive information on how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, Senator Sheila Keuhl is sponsoring SB 71, a bill that ensures that sex education and AIDS/HIV prevention instruction be comprehensive, age appropriate, and free of bias on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, among other protected categories.

TCLA’s Solange Castro Belcher spoke with civil rights attorney Rocio Córdoba about SB 71. Rocio Córdoba is an independent legal and policy consultant in the area of women’s rights and reproductive health rights as well as president of the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom (CCRF).Córdoba was part of the working group that co-sponsored the bill and has worked as an advocate for reproductive rights for twelve years.

"Research shows that programs that teach both abstinence and contraception — basically, 'comprehensive' education — can help delay the onset of sexual activity and increase contraception and condom use. On the contrary, programs that focus exclusively on abstinence make young people less likely to use contraception when they do become sexually active."

TCLA: Can you tell us how this bill will change sex education in public schools?

Rocio Córdoba: Senate Bill 71 would accomplish a number of goals, the first being that it would clarify the guidelines for schools concerning sexuality education curricula. The references to sex education, HIV, and AIDS education under current law have different requirements and are scattered throughout different provisions of California's education code. This makes it very confusing for school staff and administrators to know what is required, allowed or not allowed. This law will clear up the guidelines and confusion by gathering all of these requirements into one place.

What’s currently required under the law is that HIV and AIDS prevention education has to be taught at least once in middle school and once in high school. Sexuality education is not currently required but, when provided, it has to follow certain requirements that are confusing under the current law. SB 71 says that if schools are going to teach sexuality education, the curriculum must be medically accurate and comprehensive. Comprehensive means the curriculum should include teaching the benefits of abstinence, as well as birth control methods to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. SB 71 also has provisions to ensure that the curriculum does not contain any kinds of bias on the basis of race, gender sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability. The instruction and materials must be accessible to students with disabilities, and must also be made available on an equal basis to students who are English Language Learners. In addition, it requires instruction to be age appropriate so that it is consistent with the grade level that is being taught.

"It is important to involve families and the community, including policy makers, in addressing the issue of adolescent reproductive health and to acknowledge that it is critical to the well being of our young people — just like education, health care, and other basic essentials. "

TCLA: Can you talk a little more about what “comprehensive” sex education is?

RC: "Comprehensive” sex education provides information about birth control methods and methods to reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases — which is different from “abstinence only” information. There has been some research conducted about parents’ views on comprehensive sexuality education. There is a misconception that parents don’t support comprehensive sex education. However, polling shows that they do. The Kaiser Family Foundation polled parents of 7th through 12th graders and found widespread support for the discussion of birth control topics. 97% supported education on abstinence. More than 85% of parents said they support comprehensive education, including information on how to use condoms, etc. In California, nearly 90% of adults support teaching age appropriate sex education in the schools.

In addition, more than 84% of parents believe that specific instruction should be provided about how to prevent pregnancy and STD’s. In the event that parents are concerned about their children participating in a sexuality education course, the current bill, SB 71, provides parents with the choice of opting their children out of sex ed instruction. The reason why comprehensive sexuality education is critical for young people is that it provides students with important information that they will need about birth control, to reduce the chances of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and to protect their sexual health. It also recognizes the reality that 50% of adolescents are sexually active.

Another concern that some people have is that sexuality education promotes sexual activity, but research shows the opposite. Research shows that programs that teach both abstinence and contraception, basically “comprehensive” education, can help delay the onset of sexual activity and increase contraception and condom use. On the contrary, programs that focus exclusively on abstinence make young people less likely to use contraception when they do become sexually active. These programs also withhold information on how to protect themselves against life threatening diseases.

TCLA: How are young women affected by current reproductive education?

RC: Teen pregnancy rates continue to remain high in California, in particular among African American and Latina young women. Information about contraception is an effective means of addressing ways to prevent pregnancy and protect young people’s overall sexual health. Currently, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, and the American Health Association all agree that comprehensive sex education protects students’ health.

TCLA: How did you first become involved in this issue?

RC: I have been actively involved in reproductive rights advocacy for many years. I became involved in this effort as part of being an active advocate in support of ensuring teens' access to reproductive health care, and that young people in California are aware that the law and the California constitution protects their right to confidential access to reproductive health care, contraception, and information on how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.

We're going right?  Yes, but what if I don't want anyone to know?
Postcards produced by the ACLU of Southern California Latina Rights Project.

"We often think of safety from physical harm. 'Comprehensive' sexuality education is a protection from life threatening diseases as well as unintended pregnancies so that young women have the ability to make informed choices and reach their full potential."

TCLA: How does teen pregnancy affect teen mothers?

RC: Research has shown that women who become parents when they are teens have additional challenges in ensuring that they can complete their education for a variety of reasons, and there is a greater percent of women in poverty who have had children while in their teens. The overall concern is that young women and men don't have the information to make their own informed choices about their health care and their future. It is important to involve families and the community, including policy makers, in addressing the issue of adolescent reproductive health and to acknowledge that it is critical to the well-being of our young people — just like education, health care, and other basic essentials. It’s not just the responsibility of young people, but also the responsibility of adults to communicate with their children so they can be knowledgeable and make informed choices. And it’s also the responsibility of policy makers to support programs that provide information and access to reproductive health care for young women.

TCLA: What should young women know about their rights?

RC: Very few young women are aware that they can get confidential access to reproductive health services and do not have to get permission from their parents to go to a family planning clinic or to get birth control. Many teens are deterred from visiting a reproductive health care provider because of their fear that their parents may find out or somebody may find out. There are peer educator programs available in some clinics so that young people can talk to other teens who have been trained to talk about birth control and so forth. It’s important that teens know they can go to many community health clinics and get services provided for free or at low cost.

TCLA: How can teachers and administrators make schools a safer place for young women?

RC: I think providing information that will contribute to the health and well-being of young women is always going to be positive. We often think of safety from physical harm. "Comprehensive" sexuality education is a protection from life threatening diseases as well as unintended pregnancies so that young women have the ability to make informed choices and reach their full potential. Reproductive health is very broadly defined by California advocates. Reproductive health is really intended to allow young women to be in a position to have vital information and make informed choices free of discrimination and other social or economic barriers.

However, it is not just the teens’ responsibility, but the community’s as a whole. For example, I think there is a misconception that Latino parents don’t want their children to get information about sexuality and what we have found out through research is that some parents feel uncomfortable talking about these issues, but they are very comfortable with the schools providing it. Contrary to popular belief, parents do want their children to get that information and they feel comfortable if their children are getting that information from their schools. I think when our communities recognize the benefit of having teens being informed, healthy, and able to reach their full potential, that will hopefully prompt more efforts to support comprehensive sex education.

^tcla

ACLU Flyer/Targeta
PDF Reproductive Rights Pamplet/Targeta sobre derechos reproductivos (PDF, 6.5 MB, 2 pp.)
Postcards produced by the ACLU of Southern California Latina Rights Project.

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