Walking the Line Between Sex and Politics
By Debra Miller
Parents and school personnel contacted Utah Rep. Bill Wright last year expressing concern that Planned Parenthood had posted on its website a curriculum for middle schoolers endorsed by the state Department of Education.
Wright said he was alarmed, as he had sponsored the legislation on the “maturation” health education program for middle schoolers and the human sexuality curriculum for high schoolers.
“The maturation program was designed for separate conversations with young men and young women,” he said. In addition, the Planned Parenthood website linked to materials on homosexuality that Wright said, “opened the door to the wrong path.”
So he met with representatives from the department of education who said they did not endorse the Planned Parenthood curriculum. After nine months, the endorsement language was not removed.
That’s how House Bill 363 was born. Wright’s bill would have allowed school districts to choose to drop sex education classes and would have prohibited any teaching about contraception, homosexuality or sexual activity outside of marriage. Wright intended to underscore the abstinence-only language already law in Utah.
“To teach anything else opens discussion to other topics,” he told CSG.
Many lawmakers, Wright said, were not sure any health or sex education was necessary given the pressure on schools to cover more important curriculum areas.
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, a 2010 Toll Fellow, told CSG her constituents were “totally flabbergasted” over the bill.
“Abstinence-only education is not consistent with the literature about best practices related to education on reproductive health,” Seelig said. “It is important to adopt science-based, peer-reviewed best practices in public policy matters, particularly in issues that have direct impact on reproductive health and even on criminal victimization.”
The bill passed both the Utah House and Senate. Pressure against the bill really started after it landed on Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk.
“It wasn’t on everyone’s radar,” Wright said. “The ACLU weighed in and then the local unions weighed in. Then the gay and lesbian community got excited and weighed in.”
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Herbert received nearly 10,000 letters, emails and calls about the bill. Nine opposed the bill for each one who supported it, according to the paper’s analysis of correspondence reviewed under an open records request.
Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Tribune that most of the correspondence was uniquely written as opposed to form letters from an organized campaign. “I’d certainly say the sheer volume creates an impression and one which cannot be ignored,” she told the Tribune.
Herbert vetoed the bill saying, “After careful review of existing law and following extensive discussions with stakeholders on both sides of the issue, I am convinced the existing statutory framework respects these two principles (the importance of abstinence and a parent’s right to determine how their children are instructed), while HB 363 simply goes too far by constricting parental options. I cannot sign a bill that deprives parents of their choice.”
Seelig praised the veto. “I was glad to know that the governor was responsive to parents,” she said. Wright called the veto “a calculated political decision.”
Education wasn’t the only topic of legislation related to sexuality in the 2012 legislative session.
Several states took action to limit state funding for women’s health care to organizations that provide abortions. The issue was highlighted in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry stands steadfast behind a 2011 legislative vote to block any family planning funds to Planned Parenthood organizations.
The law, which took effect March 14, prohibits Planned Parenthood, or any other facility with ties to abortion providers, from delivering cancer screening, contraceptives and basic health care to low-income women under the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. About 130,000 women in Texas are eligible for the program and about 44 percent of them get care at Planned Parenthood clinics. No state or federal money can be used to pay for abortions, but Planned Parenthood clinics had provided a range of other health services to women.
Federal Medicaid officials immediately notified Texas the new state law violated federal law.
Now, both the court of public opinion and the federal appeals court are weighing in. Women upset with Perry’s actions clogged his Facebook page in March, posting thousands of comments, many of them negative, about the governor’s policy stand. Protesters took to the streets in Austin three weeks in a row in March; they wore red to reinforce their message that they were seeing red over Perry’s move.
The Texas attorney general filed suit, alleging the federal action to stop Medicaid funding is illegal and violates the U.S. Constitution.
Planned Parenthood also filed suit to block excluding its programs from Medicaid funding and alleged that the exclusion violates the organization’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association. Three courts have ruled and, for now, an injunction allows Medicaid reimbursement to continue to Planned Parenthood clinics, pending a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in New Orleans in June.
Texas has submitted the required transition plan to the federal government and the Perry administration has pledged that a fully funded state program will begin in November when all federal funding is withdrawn.
Other states passed legislation in 2011 to end funding for women’s health services to providers who also provide abortions. In Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina, judges have blocked state laws similar to the Texas law. Wisconsin has withheld funding for family planning and breast cancer screening. Arizona joined the list in 2012, while a similar measure in Iowa died on the final day of the 2012 session.
President Obama’s call for insurance coverage—at no cost to enrollees—for any prescribed FDA-approved contraceptive and related services also drew a firestorm of controversy and prompted some states to take action.
Twenty-six states passed laws between 1998 and 2011 to mandate coverage of contraceptive services, while two additional states have mandates in place following an attorney general’s opinion and a human rights commission finding.
New Hampshire lawmakers revisited its 12-year-old law requiring contraceptive coverage.
Rep. Terie Norelli, who had sponsored the original bill, told CSG, “There was no public outcry.”
Norelli credits the actions in her state to the fact that many Republicans don’t like the Affordable Care Act and it’s a presidential election year.
“It’s a political opportunity—they have another argument against the ACA, which is this religious exemption,” she said. “It’s really about contraceptive coverage. The New Hampshire (Republican) leadership was caught unaware of the state law and so they are now trying to repeal the state law.”
A religious exemption is included in 19 states laws, including Hawaii. The Obama administration’s compromise to exempt religious institutions is said to be modeled after the Hawaii plan.
In New Hampshire, Norelli had predicted the effort to turn back the state mandate would fail.
“I believe they are out of touch with public opinion. For most women, it is a matter of fairness,” she said. “Almost 98 percent of Catholic women use some kind of contraceptive, so there is a question of fairness.”
In fact, the measure did fail in the state. But similar efforts succeeded elsewhere.
Arizona House Bill 2625, approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, a 1995 Toll Fellow, gives all employers the right to refuse coverage of contraception in their health insurance plans, a right previously reserved for churches and faith-based institutions.
Missouri legislators passed a bill allowing employers to refuse to provide coverage for birth control in their employee health insurance plans.
In Georgia, a bill to exempt religious companies from providing contraception and one to ban abortion coverage from state employee health insurance both failed to pass before the 2012 session adjourned.