INDIANAPOLIS — Liberal Democrat Sen. Jean Breaux and conservative Republican Sen. Jean Leising are polar opposites politically, but they're aligned on one critical issue: They want to know what Indiana students are learning about sex.Both women are concerned about the state's teen pregnancy rate, which remains higher than the national average even as the number of young pregnant mothers is dropping.
On Wednesday, they labored to advance a bill that would have compelled the state departments of health and education to work together to determine what students are being taught about sex in their health classes. The departments would also have been asked to propose a curriculum that included medically accurate standards for sex education.
The General Assembly would have had to vet the standards before they could be taught in school.
The legislation, however, failed to pass out of committee after it met steep opposition from social conservatives — even after its original language was amended to replace the phrase “sex education” and the broader concept of health and wellness was included.
“I know that sex in this Legislature, after (being here) 35 years, is a four-letter word,” said longtime state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, a bill supporter who offered the amendment.
That’s what Leising and Breaux feared. The bill was shot down in a 7-4 vote by the Senate Education Committee after lobbyists with conservative faith-based organizations, including Advance America and the Indiana Family Institute, decried their bill.
Advance America’s Eric Miller called it “dangerous” because it would lead to what he called “contraceptive-based sex education” that would undermine Indiana’s current policy that requires schools to deliver an abstinence-only message when it comes to sex outside of marriage.
“Maybe the reason why we’re not doing as well with regard to teen pregnancy is that focus on abstinence …is not being emphasized as much as should be,” he said, while testifying against the bill.
Leising, a Catholic who represents a predominantly white, rural southeastern Indiana district, said the measure wasn’t about pushing contraception. In an interview Tuesday, she defended the bill: “It has nothing to do with Planned Parenthood. It has everything to do with what a young man or young woman should know.”
Breaux, an African-American from Indianapolis, has long questioned the state's abstinence-only policy. Her district includes a portion of Marion County, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any urban area in the state – but it also ranks below many rural counties.
“This isn't just an urban poor issue,” said Breaux, in an interview before the bill was heard. “This is a young person's issue.”
Breaux and Leising were aligned on the measure after they talked last fall about the state’s teen pregnancy rates.
They looked at numbers showing a decline in teen birth rates since 2007, both nationally and at the state level, but Indiana's drop was slower. As of 2012 – the most-recent year for which data is available – Indiana's rate of 33 births per 1,000 teenagers was higher than that of all its neighboring states, except Kentucky.
For Leising, the numbers she saw about rural communities concerned her. She found that one of her district’s poorest counties also had one the highest teen pregnancy rates.
A Purdue University study released last October affirmed that as a trend in 22 of Indiana's rural counties that have had higher teen birth rates for much of the last decade.
The Purdue study found a strong link between rural poverty and teen pregnancy. Compared to counties with the lowest teen pregnancy rates, counties with the highest teen pregnancy rates had lower median household income, substantially more children living in poverty, and a higher share of children growing up in single-parent households.
Leising and Breaux also thought Indiana's teen pregnancy rates would concern fiscal conservatives in the General Assembly. Leising noted that 51 percent of Indiana's births are now paid for by the state, through Medicaid dollars it receives.
“A lot of those births are to young people,” Leising said.
After the vote, Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said he shared the concern over high teen pregnancy rates in Indiana. “But this isn’t the way to solve it,” he said of the bill.
Breaux's past efforts to expand sex education in K-12 schools have been modeled to appease some social conservatives. One past measure, for example, required the state develop an age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education curriculum but also would have required teachers to strongly encourage students to talk to their parents about sex and to teach respect for marriage.
The legislation she and Leising supported stopped short of requiring schools to expand sex education, but sought to task health experts and educators to develop an improved teaching model, Leising said.
“We think young people are street smart, but are they?” Leising said. “That's my question: What do they really know? That's what we need to find out.”