UPDATED: Time to Turn the Lights on in Wisconsin Schools

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UPDATED: Time to Turn the Lights on in Wisconsin Schools

Chris Taylor

A broad coalition of medical and social service groups supports passage of the Healthy Youth Act in Wisconsin. But a minority is using coercive tactics and misinformation to kill a bill that would fund desperately-needed services.

UPDATE: The Healthy Youth Act passed out of committee this morning in the Wisconsin State Senate, and will now go on to the full Senate for a vote.  We will keep you updated.

Like states across the country, Wisconsin is facing a
public health crisis
that needs a statewide solution.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services
(DHS), sexually transmitted diseases among Wisconsin teens ages 15 to 19 increased
53 percent between 1997 and 2007. Twenty percent of new HIV infections in
Wisconsin are diagnosed in young people ages 15 to 24.  And at the same time, the dramatic 10 year drop in teen
childbearing has halted.

With 28 health centers throughout Wisconsin, Planned
Parenthood of Wisconsin is the state’s largest and oldest reproductive health
provider.  We see patients every day
who do not have the knowledge to prevent the STD they have contracted or
prevent the unintended pregnancy that they now confront.  This is an outrage.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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There is no dispute that abstinence is the most effective
way to avoid unintended pregnancy and STDs.   But the reality
is that 45 percent of Wisconsin high school students self-report being sexually
active and only 61 percent said they used a condom during their last sexual
encounter, according to a 2008 DHS study.  We need to do more for our the sake of our kids’ futures.

Today the Wisconsin state Senate Committee on Education is voting
on the Healthy Youth Act,
a much needed first step in teaching young people the skills and information
they need to make safe, healthy choices now and throughout their lives.  The Healthy Youth Act was passed in by
the full state Assembly in November, but had not moved in the Senate—until

The Healthy Youth Act ensures
that the most current standards of sex education are being taught and that
public schools are using programs proven to reduce teen pregnancy and STD
rates.  The bill updates the core
elements of what a sex education program must include if offered in Wisconsin
and does away with ineffective abstinence-only policies.

To most Wisconsinites, this bill is about common sense, a
much-needed first step in ensuring more students in our state have access to
life-saving health information. 
Eighty-seven percent of voters in Wisconsin, including people from all
political persuasions, support teaching youth accurate information about
pregnancy and disease prevention.

What’s more, a broad coalition supports the Healthy Youth
Act, including the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Public Health
Association and the Wisconsin Association of School Nurses.  These organizations are working with
students on the front lines and they know that evidence-based, comprehensive
sexuality education is one important part of a much needed state-wide approach
to help youth avoid unintended pregnancy and disease.

The few groups opposing the Healthy Youth Act oppose contraceptive use
not just by teens, but by adults, too. 
These individuals ignore undisputed data and distort both current law
and the Healthy Youth Act to make their case.  Their effort to defeat this legislation is unlike anything
we’ve seen before.

Constituents have threatened the children of supportive
legislators.  Capitol Police were
called to the Assembly hearing because of the
conduct of an opponent
who apparently mistook the hearing for a Tea Party
rally.  But it’s not just average
citizens engaged in this abhorrent behavior.

A document circulated in the Capitol by a legislative aide
calls the Healthy Youth Act “a tax-payer funded bailout of Wisconsin’s abortion
industry.”  The document alleges the
bill would “promote homosexuality to captive teen audiences” and establish
“taxpayer-funded sex clinics in Wisconsin schools.”  At public hearings on the bill, legislative aides have
photographed prominent supporters of the legislation and coordinated
the harassment
of these supporters with local activists.  

Their efforts have been relentless.  In the week following the Senate
hearing, a Milwaukee
priest supporting the legislation
received between three and eight phone
calls a day from people outside of his parish condemning him for his support of
the Healthy Youth Act.  Anti-choice
extremists have demanded business leaders pull funding of a sexual assault
treatment facility whose social worker testified in support of the bill.

In spite of the small but coordinated effort to keep teens
in the dark, supporters of the Healthy Youth Act will continue to send a clear
message to lawmakers that it’s time to turn the light on in Wisconsin schools.  And with so much at stake, it’s time
they listen to us.