Unelected Sex

Like a bride on her wedding night, local Dems have a sudden case of cold feet

Like a bride on her wedding night, local Dems have a sudden case of cold feet

Last year, Minnesota set a state record for sexually transmitted diseases, with 16,428 new infections, a 2 percent increase from the previous year, according to statistics released last week by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Young people were most at risk. In fact, two-thirds of all STD infections occurred in residents under the age of 25. More than three-quarters of the cases were chlamydia, a disease that primarily strikes teenagers and young adults. What's more, the infection rate among this age group has doubled in the last decade.

While the disease is often symptom-free, if left untreated, chlamydia can lead to infertility, and women who are infected are up to five times more likely to contract HIV.

Given this grim portrait of sexual health, you'd think state legislators would be spurred to take action. But even as these statistics were being publicized, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature was busy stifling a bill that could help solve the problem.

For five years, DFLers led the charge to make comprehensive sex-ed classes mandatory in public schools. During that time, a familiar pattern emerged: The Democrat-controlled Senate would pass the legislation, but the bills would languish in the majority-Republican House.

But the stalemate seemed destined to be broken in the current session. Riding a wave of discontent over Republican policies at both the national and state levels, DFLers scored a legislative landslide in the fall elections, picking up a whopping 19 seats in the House, giving the former opposition party a nearly veto-proof majority. In the Senate, DFLers increased their control to a 44-23 margin.

It appeared inevitable that students would soon be studying proper condom usage along with chemistry and trigonometry.

But the DFL's resolve to take on the notoriously contentious issue of sexual education has wilted since they took control. Sex-ed legislation in the Senate has languished in committee, while a similar bill in the House has been saddled with a poison pill that would significantly undercut its impact.

"Because of fearful legislators, I'm fearful for all students in Minnesota not being armed with this vital information," says Rep. Mindy Greiling (D-Roseville), a proponent of the sex-ed bill.

The pending legislation mandates that local school districts arm students with information about how to prevent pregnancies and STDs. It directs officials to use an "abstinence first" approach, though exact details would be left to the school districts.

"They can choose to implement this in any way they choose," says Lorie Alveshere, policy director for the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting. "It just creates the outline from which they would then work."

Yet even this cautious approach has encountered resistance. The primary stumbling block in the House is an amendment tacked onto the bill during committee hearings. It changes the mandated sex-ed classes from an "opt-out" to an "opt-in"—meaning that parents would have to be proactive if they want their kids to take the class.

Supporters of comprehensive sex ed worry that such a prerequisite would mean the most vulnerable kids don't get the information they desperately need.

"They might not be the ones who have that good, strong talk with their families," says Greiling. "It's information that all students should have in their health classes."

The opt-in provision also raises concerns that local school districts will be saddled with an unwieldy amount of paperwork. "By doing the opt-in, what you're creating is a bureaucratic nightmare for school districts," says Rep. Carlos Mariani (D-St. Paul), who opposed the opt-in provision.

Nonetheless, the amendment passed by a 12-9 margin last month, with five Democrats joining Republicans in supporting it. "They put that in there because they're afraid of the controversy around sexual education," says Amy Brugh, public policy director for Minnesota AIDS Project. "They don't really want opt-in; they want the bill to go away."

Greiling suspects some DFLers in conservative-leaning districts voted for the amendment out of fear for their future electoral prospects, leery of raising the ire of the Capitol's redoubtable pro-life lobby.

"They're probably figuring they're saving themselves some trouble in the future," she says.

Even more bewildering is the legislation's lack of progress in the Senate. The bill never got a hearing in committee, leaving the measure stillborn.

In other words, now that meaningful sex ed actually has a chance to pass, Senate DFLers appear to have lost the will to act.

"In the past, they could always fall back on the fact that the House wasn't going to pass it," says Brugh.

Legislators have been on Easter break for the last week, leaving the measure in limbo. Supporters of sexual education have used the hiatus to try to rally support. Sen. Sandy Pappas (D-St. Paul), the legislation's sponsor, says she intends to bring it up as a stand-alone bill on the Senate floor. "It's not dead," she insists.

Ultimately, the debate is likely to surface on the floors of the House and Senate in coming weeks. Only then will it be known if DFLers are willing to match their words with action.

"Anything can happen," says Alveshere, "unfortunately for the youth of Minnesota."