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Rep. Todd Akin’s comments prove need for sex ed in schools

Republican Senate candidate Todd AkMissouri State Fair SedaliMo. Aug. 16.  |  OrlWagner~AP

Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo., on Aug. 16. | Orlin Wagner~AP

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Updated: October 6, 2012 1:46PM

The recent remarks about “legitimate rape” by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) set off a firestorm of controversy across the nation. Lost in the discussion about Mr. Akin’s political future was the actual substance of his original remarks — namely, the false assertion that women are somehow able to “shut down” their reproductive system and reject pregnancy after a rape. Mr. Akin walked backed this statement and said, “all of us understand that rape can result in pregnancy.”

Sadly, as his comments demonstrate, “all of us” do not have medically accurate information regarding sexual health. Each day, in classrooms across the nation and across Illinois, students are presented with information about sex and sexual health that is inaccurate, incorrect and biased. This incorrect information is presented in the guise of “abstinence-only until marriage” sexual-health education programs that fail to prepare young people to make good decisions about their own sexual health.

Last session, the Illinois Senate passed House Bill 3207, the Accurate Sexual Health Education bill. The measure is simple: It updates and modernizes sexual-health curricula in Illinois’ public schools. If a local school elects to teach sexual-health education, this law would require the school to teach medically accurate and age-appropriate curricula. This just makes sense. The bill also requires that any sexual-health education curricula also include information (again, when age-appropriate) about contraception.

Critics of the Accurate Sexual Health Education bill suggest it bars any teaching of “abstinence only until marriage” curricula. This is not accurate. The legislation states that materials taught in our public schools must include instruction on the benefits of delaying or abstaining from sexual activity.

The sad truth is that abstinence-only education curricula have been hijacked to send political and ideological messages, rather than convey accurate information. One study found that some abstinence-only programs misrepresented the failure rate of condoms, sometimes exaggerating the failure rate by five or six times the real rate.

Opponents of the Accurate Sexual Health Education bill have made wild claims about what would happen in our classrooms if this bill became law.

Despite the scare tactics, parents see the value of this approach. A 2009 statewide poll showed that a wide majority of voters support the idea of updating and modernizing sexual-health education to give young people the tools to make informed, wise decisions about their health. Parents see the essential nature of assuring that their children are taught accurate information about sexual health, in the same way they want to see children taught accurate information about history, math, literature and science.

After all, a high school senior might be able to get by without knowing when Huckleberry Finn was published, but lacking correct information about their sexual health can have lifelong consequences.

Rep. Akin’s misinformed comments launched anew that seemingly endless dialogue about women’s reproductive rights. We should not let that conversation blind us to the appalling lack of public education about reproductive health that his comments reveal. We can ensure that our young people at least have a base line of information about sexual health throughout life.

Illinois State Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Camille Lilly are Democrats from Chicago.

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