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Topic / Health

Reproductive Rights Extend to Sexual Education As Well

Since the Dobbs decision, reproductive rights have increasingly become criminalized and polarized within the United States. More than 22 states have passed laws banning gender affirming care for transgender youth until the age of 18.1 Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, more than 21 states have instituted harsh anti-abortion laws that criminalize both the patient and oftentimes the healthcare provider.2 In Florida, the new “Don’t Say Gay” law has banned all curriculum associated with gender identify or sexual education in schools.3 Even within the “liberal” west coast, pockets of California such as the Central Valley (which includes Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield, Madera, Tulare, and other towns) do not provide comprehensive sexual health education for children and advocate for “abstinence until marriage” as their primary method of sexual education. Reproductive and sexual education is a fundamental human right, and all adolescents deserve the right to a comprehensive sexual health education.  

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Clovis Unified School District (CUSD) for not providing “comprehensive, medically accurate, bias-free sexual health education to its high school students.”4 In 2015, the Fresno Superior Court ruled that the CUSD was providing outdated sexual education curriculum which was also out of compliance with California state law.5 Despite the California Healthy Youth Act enacted in 2016 to ensure all 9-12th graders are receiving a comprehensive sexual health curriculum, CUSD has continued to not enforce sexual health education, exclusively teaching “abstinence-only-until-marriage” within the curriculum, and does not reference LGBTQ issues or updated treatment for people with HIV/AIDs.6 This lack of a comprehensive sexual health curriculum has dire consequences for the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy within the Central Valley. The county of Fresno, CA was ranked 6/58 (with 1 being the highest rate of incidence) for incidence of chlamydia and gonorrhea for adolescents between the ages of 15-17 nationwide.7 The rate of congenital syphilis is 202.5 in Fresno, CA, which is significantly higher than the state average of 114.9.8 The teen birth rate in Fresno, CA is 17.3, which is higher than the state average of 10.3 and the national average of 15.2.9 With more than half of all teenagers having sex before the age of 18, it is not a reasonable educational strategy to advocate for abstinence only.10

It is of the utmost importance to provide a mandatory, annual sexual education course for all high school students (9-12th grade) in the Central Valley. Access to sexual education allows for positive sexual health outcomes, including delayed sexual initiation and increased protective strategies when engaging in sex.11 As mandated by United Nations Technical Guidelines on comprehensive sexuality education, a comprehensive sexual education course would involve sexual education, STI screening information, and contraception options.12 According to the American Academy of Physicians, more than three decades of data from a meta-trial showed that comprehensive sexual health education programs are effective in reducing risks of STIs, unplanned pregnancy, and even go so far as to help build skills for emotional regulation, communication, and healthy relationships.13 Recent studies have shown that students receiving comprehensive sexual education are also less likely to report teenage pregnancy, while receiving abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of teenage pregnancy.1415

The biggest area of resistance in CUSD’s implementation of comprehensive sexual health curriculum has been pushback from conservative groups that are worried the implementation of sexual health education might promote more “risky” sexual behaviors or advocate for having sex in the first place. Clovis is a conservative stronghold in California, with almost half of all registered voters registered as Republican, and where both US representatives for the 22nd Congressional District are Republican.16 Organizations such as “Right to Life Central California,” “Respect Life,” and other anti-abortion clinics abound in Clovis. A recent threatened lawsuit in 2023 is forcing CUSD to switch the way they elect school-board members, after accusations that the current way of elections allowed for racial polarization and did not allow enough representation from minority groups.17

Due to political willpower and ideologies in Clovis, the idea of a “liberal” comprehensive sexual education has not been able to gain much ground in Clovis, CA. However, many studies have shown that a comprehensive sexual health education actually reduces risky sexual activity, delays initiation of sexual activity, and reduces STIs and unintended pregnancies.18 A recent study conducted in a rural part of North Dakota with similar cultural and politically conservative ideologies about sexual education discussed the implementation process of sexual education, including stressing the importance of gaining the trust and partnerships of community organizations as well as surrounding universities.19 To date, this project has been able to reach almost 400 youth to provide them with access to comprehensive sexual education in a very rural and conservative part of the US. A similar strategy utilizing community partnerships and university relationships with trusted schools such as Fresno State University can be utilized to implement sexual education in CUSD as well.  

Comprehensive sexual health curriculum should be a right for all adolescents within the Central Valley who are currently only learning about abstinence in their sex-ed classes. Comprehensive sexual education empowers youth to exercise their sexual rights and allows for safer sexual practices in the future. As CUSD has started to re-evaluate their sexual health curriculum following the pandemic, now is the time to act.

  1. HRC Foundation, “Map: Attacks on Gender Affirming Care by State,” Human Rights Campaign, November 13, 2023, ↩︎
  2. The New York Times, “Tracking Abortion Bans Across the Country,” The New York Times, January 8, 2024, ↩︎
  3. Joseph Ax, “Florida Education Board Extends Ban on Gender Identity Lessons to All Grades,” Reuters, April 19, 2023, ↩︎
  4. “American Academy of Pediatrics vs. Clovis,” ACLU of Southern California, ↩︎
  5. “American Academy of Pediatrics v. Clovis USD (Comprehensive Sex Education),” ACLU of Northern California, May 4, 2015, ↩︎
  6. Jacqueline Uribe, “The Clovis Unified School District Sex Education Curriculum,” Central Valley Scholars, August 26, 2020, ↩︎
  7. Epidemiology, Surveillance and Federal Reporting, “Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health, Fresno County, 2016,” California Department of Public Health, 2018, ↩︎
  8. Healthy Fresno County, “Sexually Transmitted Infections,” Healthy Fresno County Community Dashboard, ↩︎
  9. “American Academy of Pediatrics vs. Clovis,” ACLU of Southern California. ↩︎
  10. Mackenzie Mays, “Is the Central Valley’s Approach to Sex Ed Boosting Teen Birth and STD Rates?” USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, March 6, 2017, ↩︎
  11. Eva S. Goldfarb and Lisa D. Lieberman, “Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education,” Journal of Adolescent Health 68 (2021): 13–27. ↩︎
  12. UNESCO, “International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education: An Evidence-informed Approach,” World Health Organization, “March 14, 2018, ↩︎
  13. American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Importance of Access to Comprehensive Sex Education,” American Academy of Pediatrics, February 15, 2024, ↩︎
  14. Pamela K. Kohler, Lisa E. Manhart, and William E. Lafferty, “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy,” Journal of Adolescent Health 42, no. 4 (April 2008): P344–51. ↩︎
  15. Nicholas D.E. Mark and Lawrence L. Wu, “More Comprehensive Sex Education Reduced Teen Births: Quasi-Experimental Evidence,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, no. 8 (February 2022): e2113144119. ↩︎
  16. “Report of Registration as of February 10, 2019, Registration by Political Subdivision by County,” California Secretary of State, February 10, 2019, ↩︎
  17. Lasherica Thornton, “Clovis Unified to Get Rid of Its At-large School Board Elections,” EdSource, August 5, 2023, ↩︎
  18. Committee on Adolescent Health Care, “Committee Opinion: Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, November 2016, ↩︎
  19. Molly Secor-Turner, Brandy A. Randall, Katie Christensen, Amy Jacobson, and Migdalia Loyola Melendez, “Implementing Community-Based Comprehensive Sexuality Education with High-Risk Youth in a Conservative Environment: Lessons Learned,” Sex Education 17, no. 5 (2017): 544–54. ↩︎