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Mass. Senate Approves Sex Education Bill

The Senate voted Thursday to require comprehensive sex education curriculum in schools that teach the topic, easily advancing a bill that has proved controversial in the past.

Under the bill, which passed 33-2, schools offering sex education would be required to provide medically accurate and age-appropriate information, including LGBTQ-inclusive material and discussion of consent, while allowing parents to opt their children out.

Supporters said existing state law does not guarantee that materials taught are medically accurate, making an update necessary to ensure the health and well-being of students.

"If we do not teach this in our schools, our kids still learn about this in an inaccurate way," said Sen. Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat who was the bill's lead sponsor. "They're learning from their friends, from their peers, and learning information that is not inaccurate and could be dangerous for their health."

The legislation, referred to by supporters as the "Healthy Youth Act," requires Massachusetts schools that offer sex education to ensure the curriculum covers reproduction and sexual development, how to discuss safe sexual activity, human development changes, anatomy, the benefits of abstinence and importance of contraceptives, healthy relationship and communication skills and more.

The curriculum would also need to affirm that people have different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions and offer information about resources for LGBTQ students.

Districts using curricula in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework would need to comply with the updated materials. Parents could withdraw their children from the coursework, and a unanimously adopted amendment ensures they will have at least 30 days to review the materials before deciding.

"There's lots of suspenders to ensure a. this is not a mandate and b. This vote is taken in a public, open meeting and c. that parents have the ultimate choice whether or not their children would take part in this curriculum," Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said during debate.

Two of the Senate's four Republican members, Dean Tran and Ryan Fattman, voted against the bill. Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Weymouth Republican Sen. Patrick O'Connor voted in favor of the legislation after opposing a version of it in 2017.

Tarr and O'Connor could not be reached for immediate comment Thursday afternoon.

Thursday's debate was less contentious than the past two sessions in which the Senate approved sex education legislation. In 2017, Tarr unsuccessfully pushed for parents to opt in to the material rather than opt out, arguing that "education of this nature should be primarily the responsibility of the family and parents."

No senators argued outright against passage. Tran had pushed unsuccessfully for an amendment that would have required any municipality or district adopting the updated curriculum to hold public hearings and vote to opt in, arguing "education should be local and should be decided upon by the residents of that community at large."

The legislation now goes to the House, where it has died without a vote each of the past two sessions following Senate approval. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has not committed to taking it up. In May he said the topic was "on our radar to take a look at," noting that the language of the bill has evolved.

A House version of the bill has 97 representatives listed as cosponsors this session, compared to more than 70 last time.

"The state is now one step closer to offering our young people comprehensive, inclusive sex ed," Rep. Jim O'Day, who co-filed the House legislation, wrote in a tweet following the Senate's vote. "I very much look forward to a vote in the House."

NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts called the Senate vote "an encouraging sign for supporters of reproductive freedom in the Bay State."

"By mandating medically accurate sex-ed, the Massachusetts Senate is leading the charge to keep our young people safe and informed," Rebecca Hart Holder, the group's executive director, said in a press release. "Leading medical experts agree that evidence based sexual education is one of the most effective means of reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy in young people."

Hart Holder said the Senate's actions contrast with "the Trump administration's anti-science views on sexuality education," and she renewed calls for the Legislature to take up a controversial abortion access bill known as the ROE Act.

The Massachusetts Republican Party slammed the legislation ahead of the vote. MassGOP Chair Jim Lyons alleged that the bill was unduly influenced by Planned Parenthood and that it "promotes a reckless curriculum encouraging children to participate in dangerous sexual activity, all under the mask of progressivism."

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