With time running out again on comprehensive sex education legislation, Rep. James O'Day says he's trying to convince his House colleagues that the bill is not about encouraging young people to be sexually active.
"There are some of my colleagues who are still skittish about this issue," O'Day, a West Boylston Democrat, said at a rally Tuesday. "It blows my mind. But it is what it is."
Rally organizers say their bill, dubbed the Healthy Youth Act, has cleared the Senate during two consecutive sessions, but has never surfaced for a vote in the House during the past eight years. They're hoping to change that in the next two weeks.
According to supporters, the bill will address current limits on sex education by guaranteeing that school districts that offer such education provide age-appropriate and medically accurate information. Supporters say the bill will not remove lessons about the benefits of abstinence, will not require schools to teach a particular sex education curriculum, and will not dictate the grade level at which sex education begins.
In addition to allowing parents to continue to have the option of taking their children out of sex education classes, the bill also requires that districts that offer sex education to provide instruction about consent, benefits of delaying sex, how to build healthy relationships, and ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections when a person has sex. It also requires sex ed curricula to be LGBTQ-inclusive.
"This bill as far as I'm concerned goes hand in glove with the me too movement," O'Day said, citing the importance of communication skills and understanding what consent means. "And that's not being taught," O'Day said. "I am so sick of hearing about well we can't talk about this in a public venue, it's all being addressed at home. I know there are some homes that are talking about it but there are a lot more that are not talking about it."
The bill (S 2128/H 3704) is before the House Ways and Means Committee whose chairman Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez is negotiating the state budget, which was due on July 1 but remains before a six-member conference committee. The sex ed bill has been before Ways and Means since passing the Senate 31-6 in July 2017.
Sanchez was a co-sponsor of O'Day's original bill, which the Education Committee redrafted. More than 70 House lawmakers co-sponsored the bill.
According to Planned Parenthood, the bill's passage could counter Trump administration efforts to drive funds into abstinence-only initiatives to pull funds away from evidence-based curricula that the group says prevents teen pregnancies.
Seventy-six percent of likely Massachusetts voters believe middle school students have a right to receive sex education, according to an EMC Research poll of 560 likely voters conducted in June. Ninety-one percent of those polled said high school students have a right to sex education, according to Planned Parenthood, which released the poll results on Monday.
Opposing the bill, the Massachusetts Family Institute has predicted that educators will use "offensive material," questioned the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's involvement in health education frameworks standards, and speculated about possible instruction pertaining to abortion.
"This bill failed in the house last session. Let's make sure that happens again," the family institute says on its website. "Together, we can send a clear message to Beacon Hill that we DO NOT want Planned Parenthood poisoning the minds of our young children."
The legislation has been endorsed by many groups, including the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Boston Area Rape Crisis, Health Care For All, the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
Rep. Jack Lewis of Framingham said he learned about sex education by watching television. "As a young person I promised myself that I would do things a little differently than my parents," he said. "Schools need to complement what is done at home."
Lewis said he was a sex educator at a non-profit organization.
"Our kids leave home, get on the bus, go to school and hear a ton of things. They're balancing what they hear from us with everything that they hear from their friends," he said. "I need to know that when my kid goes to health class he is getting sex ed."
Rep. Paul Brodeur (D-Melrose) said his predecessor, Rep. Katherine Clark, advised him to push the bill when she was elected to the state Senate in 2010.
"Here we are eight years later, she's in Congress, I'm still here," Brodeur said. "I'm very happy where I am. I'm still working on this bill."
A father of two boys, Brodeur said parents need help because sex is hard to talk about. "It just is," he said.
He told a room full of young people who support the bill to tell lawmakers their stories.
"We are down to the finish line. Time is running out," Brodeur said. "And we need you to push as much as we are pushing from the inside."
Before finishing his remarks, O'Day urged bill supporters to lobby lawmakers to pass it. "We are running out of time ladies and gentleman. So don't take no for an answer today," he said.
Asked his expectations as far as the bill passing the House before the end of formal sessions, O'Day said, "My expectations are at about 50 percent."
Said Brodeur, "I'm always hopeful. As we get down to the finish line there's always a lot of stuff on the agenda but I think, as I said in my remarks, I think this is a nice complement to some of the other stuff that we've done, with some of the partners that we had in the room and I'm hoping this will be kind of the finishing piece of a really really strong public health, healthy youth, reproductive health agenda."
Chris Triunfo contributed reporting