The same day the Ontario government announced that abstinence must be taught in sex ed classes in all schools across the province, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists heard at its annual conference that more teenagers are becoming sexually active, pregnant, and infected by sexually-transmitted diseases.

On June 29, education minister Dave Johnson announced a new health and phys ed curriculum for grades 1-8, including requirements for sex ed. The teaching of reproduction in animals and humans in Grade 3, of puberty in Grade 5, and of pregnancy and STDs in Grade 8 is now required in all publicly-funded schools.

The curriculum says teachers must “explain the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents.” They must also “identify methods used to prevent pregnancy,” and “identify symptoms, methods of transmission, prevention, and high-risk behaviours related to common STDs, HIV and AIDS.”

A lot of leeway

The curriculum doesn’t get specific, however, on whether schools should teach condom use, and other forms of “safe sex.” Education ministry spokesperson Rita Smith said there is a lot of leeway for boards in what they decide on as long as they consult with parents and the community. “Individual boards may opt to expand the course,” she told The Interim. She expects most boards currently teaching about condoms and homosexuality to continue doing so. She stressed the major change under the new guidelines is teachers will be required to “highlight abstinence.”

Smith said parents who do not want their children taking part in sex-ed classes should consult with the school principal, who might allow the student to be exempt from some aspects of the unit being taught.

Mike Del Grande, a Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee, said it’s good that abstinence will be taught. Del Grande said he favours a form of abstinence himself: abstaining from teaching sex ed at such early ages. He supports “the latency argument that kids should be kids.”

He laments, however, that Grade 8 students probably need to be taught about pregnancy, abstinence until marriage, and intimacy issues within a moral context, considering rising pregnancy rates and the threat of STDs.

Problems increasing

According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, from 1987 to 1994 there was an 18% increase in teenage pregnancies, the number of teen abortions rose 50% faster than for women over 20, and teen-age girls have the highest rates of STDs.

The various problems associated with teen sexual activity have risen in the last three decades, according to a January 18 article in The Globe and Mail, “even as information about condoms and safe-sex has proliferated,” with increased sex-education at school.

Canadian Alliance for Chastity president Marilyn Bergeron told The Interim she’s “encouraged by any move on the part of the government towards promoting abstinence. Contraception-based sex ed just hasn’t worked.”

Bergeron says she’s concerned, however, about whose definition of abstinence will be used, and who’ll be training teachers to present it. Still, she encourages parents to take the opportunity the government’s move has provided. She says educators need parents to help them understand true chastity, and to find good materials to teach it with.

Campaign Life Coalition director Steve Jalsevac shares Bergeron’s caution, but says, “The Tories deserve credit for finally having the courage to adopt a policy that appeals to their natural constituency of social conservatives.”