HELENA – A Montana Senate committee considered Wednesday a bill that would require parental consent for sexual education and ban abortion providers from offering information in schools.
Supporters of the bill said it would protect Montana youth from being taught a so-called “progressive agenda” in schools. Opponents said that opt-in policies can interfere with access to sexual education, leading to more teen pregnancies and disadvantaging young people who are victims of domestic violence.
“When I was going to school, sex education was mostly about physiology, biology and anatomy. Sex education is no longer handled that way in our public schools,” said bill sponsor Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings. “A lot more attention is given to things like feelings, attitudes, relationships. And as society continues to change, we find out that norms that deal with sex have changed also.”
The measure would require parents to sign consent forms, or opt-in, for their child to participate in sexual education activities. Groups that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood, would be barred from providing course materials or instruction relating to sexual education in public schools.
Jeff Laszloffy, a lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, said most parents aren’t aware of the materials taught in schools and therefore can’t make an informed decision on whether to request their child not participate in sexual education lessons, a practice that is permitted under existing “opt-out” law.
“I guarantee if a parent of an 8-year-old asking for permission for their child to be in the classroom while discussion of a sexual nature take place, the parents are going to ask a lot of questions,” Laszloffy said. “We’re talking about a subject with a deeply moral component, and parents simply want to know what their kids are being taught.”
Rosemary Howell, a Helena resident and survivor of sexual abuse, said that proper sexual education — without parental involvement — could have prevented her own abuse at the hands of her friend’s stepfather.
“Allowing parents to opt out of sexual education is damaging to children because parents didn’t receive proper education either. Please help break these generational curses,” she told the Senate Education Committee during a hearing on the bill. “Parents cannot have control over sex education because parents can also be abusers.”
The 2019 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by the Office of Public Instruction found that 40% of Montana high school students have had sexual intercourse.
“They may not feel safe talking to their parents about sex, but they’re still having it,” Eleanor Cornish, a sophomore at Bozeman High School, told the committee, adding that without a signed consent form from parents, those students could be left at higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies.
Reginald Hageman, a Montana health teacher, said the bill would “leave more of our most vulnerable populations to get their sex education from their friends and porn.”
Smith advanced a similar bill in 2013, which was vetoed by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. Bullock said at the time that the bill would have intruded on the Board of Public Education and local school boards’ constitutional authority over schools.
The bill is one of several making a comeback this year, as the Republican-dominated Legislature seeks to capitalize on the election of Gov. Greg Gianforte, the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years.
The committee is expected to vote on whether to advance the bill to hearing by the full Senate in the coming days.
Several states, including Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Utah, already require parental consent for sexual education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for abortion access.
Numerous states restrict the discussion of abortion during sexual education in schools, including Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Virginia. The Tennessee Senate is considering this year a bill that would prohibit encouraging or advocating for abortion on school property.
The proposed sexual education bill comes as Montana lawmakers are seeking to pass restrictions on abortion access in the state.
The Montana House voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would ban the coverage of abortion procedures by health insurance plans offered through the state exchange. The Republican-backed bill would prohibit coverage except in cases when the life of the mother is endangered or when pregnancies are the result of rape or incest.
Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, called the bill “yet another attempt to infringe on Montanans’ right to access safe, legal abortion.”
Republicans argued that the bill would ensure that tax dollars are never used to cover a procedure that some find reprehensible.
“When you use my tax dollars to make your personal decision, I believe I have a right to say no to those funds,” said Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls.
If passed, Montana would join 26 other states that have restrictions on abortion coverage in plans offered through state health insurance exchanges.
The House split 66-34 largely along party lines in a preliminary vote. It is expected to vote on the bill for a third and final time later this week, before it is considered by the Montana Senate.
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