Naked City

Texas Remains Sexless

The State Board of Education on Friday voted to approve four controversial high school health textbooks that – at the urging of the social conservatives who dominate the board – teach abstinence as the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. The books will come with separate supplements that explicitly detail various contraception options, giving individual school districts control over when and how they share that information, if they choose to share it at all.

The vote came as little surprise: Despite months of campaigning by family planning groups, publishers resisted adding the "complete, medically accurate" STD and contraceptive information the groups had advocated, and few board members gave any indication that they found anything wrong with the texts as written. But despite the predictability, SBOE member Terri Leo, R-Spring, saved everyone from boredom by launching an entirely new last-minute controversy when she tried to further tinker with some middle school texts to promote a pro-heterosexuality message.

First, Leo argued that the books should not define marriage as a commitment between "partners" or "individuals," but "a lifelong union between a husband and a wife." This was accepted by the publishers; Glencoe/McGraw-Hill changed phrases like "When two people decide to marry," to "When a man and a woman decide to marry," and (Austin-based) Holt, Rinehart and Winston replaced "Many adults get married and have children. Some adults find fulfillment by participating in community activities and continuing to learn" with "Many adults get married and have children. Marriage is a lifelong union between a husband and wife." However, both publishers balked at including some of Leo's more bizarre suggestions, such as adding to the books' discussions of homosexuality the following: "Opinions vary on why homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals as a group are more prone to self-destructive behaviors like depression, illegal drug use, and suicide."

Several board members objected to Leo changing the definition of "marriage" at this late date – not because they oppose 1 Man 'n' 1 Woman, but because last-minute changes look an awful lot like dictating textbook content, which the SBOE cannot do. By law, the board can only correct "factual errors" and ensure the books conform to state-mandated curricular goals. An increasingly frustrated Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, argued that the board would be overstepping its authority if it adopted books that incorporated Leo's "opinions." "This is ridiculous," she said. "This is the very reason the Legislature doesn't give us the authority to make changes at the whim of board members."

Nevertheless, the textbooks passed with heterosexual-marriage and abstinence-only messages intact. The coalition of groups that had pushed for more complete STD-prevention information, including Planned Parenthood and the Texas Freedom Network, warned this was a sad day for teen STD and pregnancy prevention, and warned that kids will now turn to less-reliable sources of information, like the Internet or MTV. But Kyleen Wright of the Texas for Life Coalition, which supported the abstinence-only books, found her opponents' position baffling. "The Internet and MTV are dominated by Planned Parenthood and [the] Kaiser [Family Foundation], so I don't know what they're worried about," she said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Textbooks, State Board of Education, health textbooks, abstinence, contraception, Terri Leo, Mary Helen Berlanga, Planned Parenthood, Texas Freedom Network, Texas for Life Coalition

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