Once again some busybody legislators are in a snit over the partnership between North Dakota State University and Planned Parenthood. Eighty-nine legislators have written NDSU administration urging them to drop the sex education training workshops for teachers led by Planned Parenthood.
The underlying source of the controversy, of course, is that Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of medical services and counseling, performs abortions at some of its clinics and is a leading advocate of abortion rights.
North Dakota already has taken significant steps to keep Planned Parenthood’s influence out of classrooms. State law forbids Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education in schools. Since 2012, state law has required schools to provide abstinence-based sex education, with curriculum addressing “the risks associated with adolescent sexual activity and the social, psychological and physical health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity before and outside of marriage.”
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Aside from requiring abstinence-based sex education, local school districts in North Dakota determine what to teach their students about sex education. They can, for instance, include instruction on contraceptive methods.
That raises a critical point. The NDSU-Planned Parenthood partnership in question involves teaching teachers, not students. Teachers who participate in the workshops do so of their own volition and will apply their own best judgment about what to pass along to their students.
The legislators in a tizzy about these teacher workshops are in essence declaring that they don’t trust teachers, who are guided by their local school boards, to know what’s best for their students.
Let there be no mistake: The meddling by these legislators is an affront to academic freedom. Our colleges should be a place where ideas can be freely exchanged, in robust pursuit of greater understanding.
NDSU President Dean Bresciani appropriately made that very point in rebuffing the legislators’ request. He said campus administrators can’t interfere with research as long as it complies with the law.
“If we attempted to control research, particularly in response to political pressure, then NDSU could be violating accreditation standards, which require academic freedom and political autonomy,” Bresciani wrote. “We cannot risk our accreditation because, without it, NDSU would not be able to accept any federal money, including student loans and grants.”
The flap over the NDSU-Planned Parenthood partnership recalls an earlier episode of pointless legislative meddling, which caused instruction for at-risk teens to be put on hold until the state attorney general determined it did not violate state law.
Instead of pulling silly stunts, North Dakota legislators should ask some serious questions about why North Dakota’s progress in reducing teen pregnancies has stalled in recent years compared to other states.
North Dakota once had teen pregnancy rates that were well below the national average. But, mostly because other states have made more rapid progress, North Dakota’s teen pregnancy rates equaled the national rate in the most recent comparison available.
Is it a coincidence that North Dakota’s relative lack of progress occurred during a period that included the push for abstinence-based sex education? Research demonstrates and public health experts agree that comprehensive sex education, including contraception as well as abstinence, is more effective than abstinence-only instruction.
We agree with the legislators that abortion is a profound human tragedy, and the state has an interest in avoiding it.
Reducing teen pregnancy rates through effective prevention strategies — including evidence-based sex education — is an important way of avoiding abortions. That, not publicity stunts, deserves more legislative attention and support.