Legislation Introduced to Improve Sexual Health Education

May 19, 2019, 8:09 AM HST (Updated May 19, 2019, 8:09 AM)
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Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on Friday, May 17, 2019, along with six of their U.S. Senate colleagues, introduced the Youth Access to Sexual Health Services (YASHS) Act. The YASHS Act would authorize the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to award grants that support access to sexual health services for marginalized youths, including medically accurate and complete, age, developmentally, and culturally appropriate sexual health information. Representative Alma Adams (D-N.C.) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The existing federal support for sexual health education fails and shames too many at-risk and disadvantaged young people,” Sen. Hirono said. “Our young adults need and deserve comprehensive sexual health information that will improve their health and enhance their futures. The Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act will educate young people so they are empowered to make their own decisions and gain confidence knowing that their communities understand, accept, and support them.”

“At Planned Parenthood, we believe sex ed equips young people with the skills they need for a lifetime of good health, including the ability to have healthy relationships, make decisions for themselves, think critically about the world and be a good ally to those in vulnerable communities,” Sonia Blackiston, director of education at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, said. “Without question, we are seeing gaps in access to sex ed, and a lack of consistency when it comes to comprehensive, culturally specific, and medically accurate sex ed.”

“It is way past time we provide young people in this country with the sexual and reproductive health education, information, and care they need to stay safe and healthy,” Christine Soyong Harley, president and CEO, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), said. “We know that insurmountable barriers exist for our already marginalized young people – our youth of color, queer youth, immigrant youth, and systems-involved young people. That’s why the need for passing and implementing the Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act is so imperative. It provides a way to bridge these barriers, bringing life-saving information and care to those who need it most.”

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The YASHS Act would establish a grant program to support access to sexual health services for marginalized youths, such as young people of color, immigrant youth, school-age parents, LGBTQ youth, youth in foster care, and youth in juvenile detention. Funds under this bill could not be used for programs that are not medically accurate, promote gender stereotypes, do not address or are insensitive to the needs of vulnerable youth populations, or are inconsistent with ethical imperatives of medicine and public health.

Sen. Hirono previously introduced the Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act in 2016 and 2017. She is also a cosponsor of Senator Booker’s Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which requires all sex education programs to be medically accurate and fully inclusive of LGBTQ and pregnant or parenting youth, and eliminates funding for abstinence only programs.

Since 1982, the federal government has spent over $2 billion on abstinence-only programs, which withhold critical information about birth control and sexually transmitted infections, and do not equip young people with the knowledge they need to navigate healthy relationships. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not evidence based and have not been shown to change youth behavior or reduce unwanted teen pregnancy.

In July 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would cut more than $200 million in federal grants to organizations that work to decrease teen pregnancy rates. However, in May 2018, a federal judge in Washington state ruled that HHS had illegally ended the program after King County, a recipient of one of 84 Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grants, sued the department and Secretary Alex Azar. By August 2018, HHS resumed the grant program and continued funding the groups participating in the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.

In addition to Sens. Hirono and Booker, the YASHS Act is also cosponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.).

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