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Senate backs new sex-education standard over GOP objections

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ILLINOIS_BUDGET_SENATE_39168491.JPGSen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), pictured here last week, pushed legislation through the Senate Wednesday that would impose new sex-education requirements on school districts. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD-Illinois would have a new statewide sex-education standard for sixth- through 12th-graders that would extend beyond abstinence-only teaching under legislation that passed the state Senate Wednesday and now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn.

The measure that would require teaching about birth control cleared the Senate on a 37-21 roll call and was backed by groups like the ACLU of Illinois, AIDS Foundation of Chicago and Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

After the vote, Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the governor supports the legislation.

Opposed by Republicans, the bill would encourage school systems to offer more than abstinence-only education by adopting "comprehensive, medically accurate and age-appropriate" sex-education curricula with a specific focus on sexually-transmitted diseases, contraception and unintended pregnancies.

"Teen births represent 10 percent of our child births here in Illinois. We need to provide tools to our kids to make smarter choices than that," said state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), the bill's chief Senate sponsor.

Under her plan, school districts would retain the power to shape sex-education programs that adhere to their communities' standards, and parents could remove their children from the courses for any reason without penalty.

"Studies show that sex education that covers contraception and disease prevention results in teens who [are] more likely to delay sexual activity and use protection when sexual activity does occur," said Carole Brite, Planned Parenthood of Illinois' president and CEO.

"More than 30,000 teens in Illinois become pregnant each year, and adolescents account for the majority of reported sexually transmitted infections in the state. This bill is a huge step forward in advancing the health and safety of young people in Illinois while they are teenagers and throughout their adult lives," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) objected to the legislation, predicting it could backfire and wind up causing some school districts across Illinois to stop teaching sex education entirely.

"There's a real downside with this bill in that we're putting districts in the position if they object to just a piece of what's out there...the only choice is to stop having sex education as opposed to not living up to a curriculum they don't agree with," Radogno said.

State Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) dissected Steans' bill line-by-line, criticizing it for undoing the emphasis in current law on the importance of abstinence until marriage and stripping out specific references to that principle in state law.

"'Abstinence' is referred to (in the legislation)," McCarter said. "But this is what's taken out (from existing law): 'Abstinence is the expected norm.' That's taken out. It's replaced with, 'Abstinence is a responsible and a positive decision.'

"What else is taken out: 'People should abstain from intercourse until they are ready for marriage.' That's taken out. 'Adolescent intercourse outside of marriage' is taken out. The words 'until marriage" are taken out.

"You know, government should protect its citizens and promote prosperity. But as in this case, government is doing its best to change our culture by law. That's exactly what's happening," McCarter said.

Steans ended by invoking the ordeal of Elizabeth Smart, who as a 14-year-old was kidnapped from her Utah home by a couple and subjected to nine months of repeated rapes before escaping from her captors.

Steans said Smart, in an interview, recalled how she had been taught abstinence-only sex education in school by a teacher who likened repeated sex to being like an undesirable "chewed-up piece of gum" - a metaphor Smart took to mean that her "life was no longer valuable" because of being forced into sex repeatedly.

"That's how she had felt because of that kind of teaching. That is precisely why we're doing this. Abstinence-only (education) is not effective, and it can have some dangerous ramifications," Steans said.

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