This week, the unresolved debate over kids, sex, schools and parental rights was in the spotlight.
First, there was the startling moment in Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) likened inoculating school children against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) to “forcing innocent little 12-year-old girls to have a government injection.”
The candidate later linked the vaccine to mental retardation.
The broader issue here isn’t so much if the vaccine is safe and effective; medical experts agree that it is. It’s that in many areas, including Virginia and D.C., the vaccine is mandated for students who attend school. Bachmann’s message was to an audience who feel a mandated vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease runs roughshod over their parental rights.
That perspective is integral in the longer-running debate over teaching sex education in schools. Post education writer Bill Turque wrote in today’s Post of D.C.’s intention to test students on sex education knowledge. Sex education is widely embraced in the District, where it’s seen as a prophylactic against the epidemic here of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Outside the District the debate over sex education is far more contentious.
Like the HPV vaccine, the arguments are often divided along lines of those who believe comprehensive sex education is a public health imperative and those who feel sex education is a personal, family topic in which parents decide the timing and content of the curriculum.
The Bachmann incident was damaging for several reasons. The most obvious is that her false claim was paramount to the old-school playground sex education, when kids would learn about sex from know-nothing classmates.
Even more, it created the perception that there is a “right” answer on not only the vaccine mandate, but also on how to balance a school’s responsibility and parental rights when it comes to kids and sex. Many of the parents who most firmly believe there is a right answer on this don’t agree on what it is. To condemn the other side will not make it go away.
The bigger question to come out of this week might be: How can we begin to bridge this divide?