Earlier this week, lawmakers on Beacon Hill worked into the feverish early morning to hammer out the last few deals of their latest legislative session. A lot was accomplished: paid family leave. The “red flag” gun law. Some criminal justice reforms. A minimum wage hike. Notably absent, however, was the sex education reform parents across Massachusetts have been clamoring for, for eight years, known as the Healthy Youth Act.
Healthy Youth is not a radical bill. It simply ensures that any sex education taught in our public schools be grounded in fact and science, teach about consent and healthy relationships, and be LGBTQ affirming. Absent these protections, Massachusetts teachers and school districts are free to teach whatever they wish, true or not, about sexual health. There are no rules when it comes to sex ed in Massachusetts.
This means some of our students may learn that they shouldn’t bother with birth control because it doesn’t work (that’s false), or that queer students are damaged and wrong, or that girls who have sex with more than one partner are as valuable as used chewing gum. There’s no way to know, because no one is even tracking what passes for sex education in the commonwealth.
There are no rules when it comes to sex ed in Massachusetts.
What we do know is that the kind of sex ed provided for by the Healthy Youth Act saves and improves lives. We know that the voters of Massachusetts want it to be law. And we know that the Senate passed the Healthy Youth Act, and the House had more than enough votes to do the same. Speaker Robert DeLeo just declined to give them a chance to do so.
There are no good reasons for DeLeo’s inaction. If asked, I'm sure he would say he ran out of time. But that doesn’t hold water. Not for a bill that has already been considered in three previous legislative sessions, been passed by two committees, and would literally save young people's lives. This is a failure of leadership. It also strains credulity — even as the Healthy Youth Act sat languishing in committee, the House found time to advance a new bill, H 307, which would have junior high school students study ultrasounds of fetuses.
If past is prologue, the Healthy Youth Act will be introduced again next session, only to have leadership delay and delay action on it until we "run out of time" yet again in 2020. But we can’t afford to wait another two years.
Every school year that sex education remains unregulated in Massachusetts is one in which our kids needlessly suffer. Every year this bill has been delayed has seen more of our young people contract preventable STIs (rates of which have been soaring in Massachusetts over the last decade, with young people hit the hardest) and face preventable unwanted pregnancies.
Each delay means more students suffering sexual assaults in silence, not knowing that they have the right to their own bodily sovereignty, or that anyone would believe them if they spoke up.
Every excuse leaves LBTQ kids — and even those other students just perceive as such — more vulnerable to bullying, and to the temptation of suicide. And for what? So the Speaker and his allies can avoid the discomfort of thinking about young people's sexuality?
The Trump administration seems intent on rolling back protections for LGBTQ youth every chance they get. They have eliminated the requirement that Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs be LGBTQ inclusive, instead erasing any mention of queer kids at all. They’re replacing funding for proven teen pregnancy prevention curricula with harmful abstinence-only propaganda.
Every school year that sex education remains unregulated in Massachusetts is one in which our kids needlessly suffer.
If our local leaders aren't acting to protect the most vulnerable among us from the Trump administration’s policies, they're tacitly participating in its depredations. DeLeo and his allies have demonstrated whose side they're on when it comes to the sexual health of our children. And it's not ours.
Perhaps they have forgotten that their power is actually our power.
The effort to help our kids be smarter and safer about sex may have been thwarted for now, but the fight is not over. If you value the sexual health of young people in the commonwealth, tell your representative that you expect them to do everything in their power to ensure that Healthy Youth is passed in January 2019, at the beginning of the next legislative session.
If your representatives say they’re not sure DeLeo and House leadership will allow such a vote — ask them what they’re doing to vote in leaders who will.