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Education Reporter

McCain Hits Obama's Sex Ed Bill
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The presidential campaigns exchanged sharp words in September over Sen. Barack Obama's record on sex education for young children. The argument brought education into the spotlight at a time when most attention was focused on the economy.

The exchange began when Obama's campaign released a commercial charging that Sen. McCain "voted to cut education funding," is "against accountability standards," and "even proposed abolishing the Department of Education."

The McCain campaign responded quickly with an ad quoting criticisms of Obama's education record from several sources: Education Week's assessment that Obama "hasn't made a significant mark on education," a Washington Post editorial calling him "elusive" on accountability, and a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece naming him "a staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly."

"Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners," said the ad. This charge outraged the Obama camp, which claimed the ad misrepresented Obama's support in 2003 for Illinois Senate Bill 99. Obama spokesman Bill Burton called the ad "shameful and downright perverse," and even added, "Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn't define what honor was. Now we know why."

The New York Times, Washington Post, and many other media outlets sided with Obama. The National Review's White House correspondent, Byron York, responded with a hard-hitting investigation of SB 99.

SB 99 proposed to update Illinois's sex education law — according to a Planned Parenthood press release at the time, the bill would "bring Illinois into the 21st century." Obama's campaign now claims the bill was primarily an attempt to make sure children in grades K-6 would learn about inappropriate touching, as a safeguard against sexual predators. Planned Parenthood's press release, however, more accurately indicates the bill's overarching purpose, to jettison the original school code's emphasis on abstinence until marriage, in favor of what abortion provider Planned Parenthood considers "medically accurate sex education."

Perhaps most relevantly to the McCain ad, the bill stated, "each class or course in comprehensive sex education in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV." The earlier version made basically the same requirement, but limited it to grades 6 through 12, not K through 12.

York gives Obama the benefit of the doubt: Obama may have had in mind the threat of sexual predators when he decided to support the bill. But the plain text does say that children from kindergarten onward should learn how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

More broadly, the bill attempted to remove the language of moral obligation, including the word "should," from the school code, along with the code's original emphasis on marriage. The original bill contained these sentences:

"Course material and instruction shall teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage."

"Course material and instruction shall stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage. . . ."

"[Classes] shall emphasize that abstinence is the expected norm in that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against unwanted teenage pregnancy [and] sexually transmitted diseases. . . ."

The new law removed these passages and replaced them with these, and others like them:

"Course material and instruction shall include a discussion of sexual abstinence as a method to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV."

"Course material and instruction shall present the latest medically factual information regarding both the possible side effects and health benefits of all forms of contraception, including the success and failure rates for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. . . ."

The older version required teachers to inculcate respect for marriage, and to stress that students "should" abstain from sex before marriage; the new version made no mention of marriage at all. Senate Bill 99 would have demoted abstinence from "the expected norm" and "the only protection that is 100% effective" to merely "a method to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections." According to this bill, abstinence is just one method among others; and teachers apparently shouldn't presume to tell students which method is best.

"There is no doubt that the bill did address the question of inappropriate touching," says Byron York. "On the other hand, there is also no doubt that, looking at the overall bill, the 'touching' provision did not have the prominence that Team Obama has suggested it had, and it certainly wasn't the bill's main purpose."

Although the New York Times said the McCain ad "seriously distorts the record," the text of the bill, available online for all to see, tells a different story. "The fact is," concludes York, "the bill's intention was to mandate that issues like contraception and the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases be included in sex-education classes for children before the sixth grade, and as early as kindergarten. Obama's defenders may howl, but the bill is what it is."

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