Shifting landscape may finally lift sex ed bill in Massachusetts

By Sam Drysdale

State House News Service

Published: 05-30-2023 4:10 PM

BOSTON — Over the past decade, the Senate has passed a bill that would remodel what sex education looks like in Massachusetts on four occasions — but House Democrats have never taken it up.

With a new governor who may be more amenable to the measure and LGBTQ+ rights challenged in states across the country, the bill’s House sponsors think the timing might be right this session for the bill to make it through their chamber.

“I’ve been trying to have this bill passed now for 10 years and certainly I think given what has transpired over the last year and a half or two years across the country, I’m hopeful that my colleagues will also agree with me that the urgency is probably a little more important today — I mean, it’s always been important — that it’s a little more heightened today,” said Rep. Jim O’Day, who cosponsors the House bill alongside Rep. Vanna Howard.

Howard said her son did not receive any sex education in the Lowell public system during his four years of high school.

“He had to learn, and he could ask us, but what teenagers want to talk about that with their mom or dad or legal guardians? Right? So what do they do? They go on the internet, where they get information that is not accurate,” she said. “This is why they need a comprehensive education program in their school, where they can learn correctly from the school — that is what the school is for.”

The bill (H 544 / S 268) would create curriculum guidelines for sex education for public school districts and charter schools that opt in to teaching sex ed. It requires that districts that teach the subject go over human anatomy; how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy; effective use of contraceptives; how to safely discuss sexual activity in a relationship; skills to identify and prevent sexual violence and relationship violence; and age-appropriate and affirming education on gender identity and sexual orientation

O’Day said he believes that having Gov. Maura Healey as the state’s new executive will help his case with House Speaker Ron Mariano’s office.

Healey has often framed herself as a champion for reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights.

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“I think we have a governor presently, who I think would look upon this bill favorably, maybe even a little more favorably than the former governor,” O’Day said. “So if I don’t have a governor that’s going to veto this, then I only need 81 votes and not 107. So that’s a little easier for me to peddle to the Speaker’s office saying, ‘Hey, we only need 81 now, because I believe that the governor will support this bill.’”

A new analysis by Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which hosted an advocacy day for the bill at the State House on Tuesday, says Massachusetts’ sex education curriculum is in the company of states such as Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota — which have lower scores on measures of LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights.

The analysis created a “sex ed policy score” for each of the 50 states and D.C. on a scale of -5 to 4. States gained a point for being medically accurate, covering birth control options, including LGBTQ+ sex education, and affirming abortion. The analysis took away a point if the state’s curriculum stressed abstinence, is discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people, prohibits abortion, emphasizes heterosexual marriage, or requires parents to opt their children into the subject.

Massachusetts scored a “neutral” 0 score alongside Alaska, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming. The analysis compared these “sex ed policy scores” to each state’s policies on abortion and reproductive rights.

Massachusetts is one of four states that were listed as “protective of abortion rights” to score below a 1 on sex education policy.

“While there are plenty of states that scored lower than MA, with -5 being the lowest possible score, there are 14 states plus D.C. that scored higher... including Iowa, which has some of the most restrictive laws on the books for abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and critical race theory,” said PPLM Vice President of Education Jennifer Hart.

The House bill has 65 sponsors, though it has had at least 40 sponsors in past sessions.

“I’m tired of talking to all of you, telling you how important this bill is, and not being able to get this done,” Sen. Sal DiDomenico, who sponsored the Senate’s version of the bill, told advocates on Tuesday.

The bills were referred in February to the Joint Committee on Education, which has held one public hearing on bills this year.