Senators debate sex education bill

By Will Weissert
Associated Press

AUSTIN — A Texas Senate education panel heard details Tuesday on a proposal to prohibit organizations linked to abortion providers from teaching sex education in public schools statewide — even though critics say there are very few cases where that’s actually occurring.

The potentially contentious measure from tea party-backed Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, was hailed by abortion opponents as a way to “exclude Planned Parenthood” from Texas classrooms. It also would require school districts to seek parental consent before allowing any outside experts to teach sex education.

Sarah Wheat, director of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said “health educators” affiliated with the group have provided sex education instruction “in a handful of school districts” in Texas through the years, including in Austin.

But she also stressed that state law requires all sex education programs to promote abstinence no matter who teaches them, and said Planned Parenthood professionals have to be approved by local health oversight committees for each school district.

The proposal is the latest move in Texas’ ongoing fight against Planned Parenthood. The Texas Legislature in 2011 outlawed state funds for organizations linked to abortion providers — and subsequent lawsuits by Planned Parenthood stalled.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick applauded Paxton’s bill and said he had signed on as a coauthor, setting the tone for Tuesday’s discussion.

Joe Pojman, founder and executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, told the committee he knew of no other group besides Planned Parenthood that would be directly impacted by the bill.

He said even if Planned Parenthood isn’t in many classrooms directly, it provides instructional materials and other support so “it’s very easy to be promoting their abortion-providing facilities with the state’s children.”

Anne Newman of the conservative group the Women’s Wellness Coalition of Texas pointed to a Planned Parenthood website designed to answer teens’ questions about sex that included an entry: “How can I have safer sex with my sex toys.”

“I ask you,” Newman said, “do you want your children doing that?’”

She added, “I’m concerned about not only Planned Parenthood getting into schools but the materials getting into schools and students being referred to them.”

Wheat, though, called her organization’s website “a huge resource” and shrugged off such criticisms. “I think in China they limit access to websites,” she said. “I don’t think we can do that here.”

Newman also claimed that Planned Parenthood has been linked to “It’s Your Game” a sex education curriculum developed by the Prevention Research Center at the University of Texas’ School of Public Health and used in 15 school districts around the state.

Susan Tortolero, who directs the Prevention Research Center, said Planned Parenthood “had nothing to do with the development or evaluation” of the curriculum. “They linked us and it is just completely false,” she said.

She said representatives of the organization did, however, participate in the center’s community advisory group on another project.

Tortolero added that two studies have shown the curriculum to be “highly effective in getting kids to abstain” from sex. She said many school districts have adopted “It’s Your Game,” because “it is one of the few curricula that are effective for middle school students.”

The program has become increasingly popular with school district leaders who have seen the percentages of their students who are sexually active increase in recent years, she said.

Most of the dozens of other witnesses who waited hours to address the Senate committee were parents and community activists who support abstinence and are opposed to any group that could be seen as promoting premarital sex.

When one witness admitted to being in favor of abortion rights, Sen. Donna Campbell responded, “I’m amazed at those who make a point of promoting abortion. They’re all alive.”

The New Braunfels Republican then added: “Your mom didn’t abort you. We need to promote a culture of life.”