Certainly not for the first time, a bill currently before the Utah Legislature introduces some interesting moral dilemmas. House Bill 363 proposes limiting sex education in our public schools to abstinence-only programs or nothing at all. This bill seems fine, as far as it goes, but has a possibly fatal flaw. “Abstinence only” presupposes the values of a particular moral code, even though it may be the most generally held opinion in Utah.
Moral choices confront us throughout our lives, and a primary purpose for a general education is to give us the tools and knowledge needed to make principled and honorable decisions. However, no one has a monopoly on morality, and this certainly includes the government. The collective ideal of what is moral is essentially no better than an individual’s own perspective, and can often be far worse.
A democratically elected government is in some ways a product of the morality of its citizens, but it is also a creature entirely isolated from any individual’s moral code. It must muddle together all the varying viewpoints of its electors, always producing something unacceptable, to varying degrees, to virtually everyone. Therefore, any publicly-funded entity — such as National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service, or any information-dispensing agency like our public schools — must be careful to either purge all moral declarations from its content or include all possible sides to a moral issue. Both options are impossible. Short of removing government from all areas of moral variance, which is also impossible, some sort of standard must be set.
Our public schools have had such standards imposed on them already. Courts have declared that the subject of deity and religious belief is beyond the responsibility of our public schools. I would argue that the same logic should therefore apply to the subject of human intimacy. I cannot think of an aspect of the human condition more private and personal than one’s religious beliefs or sexual relationships.
The commitment and emotional circumstances of intimate relationships warrant the most careful considerations when discussing them in a public setting. It is interesting to consider that some of those who do not want us talking about God in pubic schools, even if we give equal time to all points of view, don’t seem to mind if we talk about sex as long as we give equal time to every viewpoint about it. No doubt learning about a different religion could be offensive to some student here or there, but it seems to me far more likely that learning about lifestyle choices such as homosexuality, sex before marriage and contraception has the potential to be far more offensive that learning that a Buddhist calls heaven nirvana.
We now receive all our religious education, or the lack thereof, from our parents. We are also taught how to chew our food, go the bathroom, and many other very basic survival skills within our home. Our public schools do not even attempt to teach us such basics. The human race has been copulating and reproducing itself for many millennia now without the benefit of public instruction on how it is done and all the “options” in doing it. Personally, my parents never gave me “the talk” and I figured it all out on my own or sought out information as I was motivated and ready. Whether mine or anyone else’s sexual choices are “normal” or “deviant” are entirely up to me to decide and my teachers or government need not instruct me in such matters.
If it ever becomes the wisdom of our courts to once again allow religion to be taught in our public schools so long as all viewpoints are presented, then by the same logic I would be okay with sex education in our schools so long as all options are taught — which of course must include abstinence-only options. But I don’t suspect that will happen anytime soon, so I would therefore propose an alternative to House Bill 363 that would eliminate the stated abstinence-only programs and simply instruct our teachers to teach nothing at all in this area.
John Hamilton, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from BYU, is the creative director for Transcript Bulletin Publishing.