Montrose Republican Sen. Don Coram is leading a state effort to fund a controversial sex education program in Colorado’s public schools, the latest example of the senator’s unusual break with his party when it comes to hot topics like marijuana, contraceptives and abortion.
In 2013, Colorado banned abstinence-only programs and instead required that sex education, if schools choose to offer it, discuss contraception and alternative gender and sexual identities. But in testimony given to lawmakers in January, students around the state said they were still getting abstinence-only education, a practice that Coram and groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union want to stop.
Coram is backing a bill that would give grants to schools to fund sex ed, but the bill would also ensure that abstinence-only programs aren’t used.
Coram’s support for the bill is simple: “Abstinence doesn’t work,” he said.
Coram, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU all support the view that abstinence-only education doesn’t protect kids from sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies. Coram and both groups referenced research published this month in the American Journal of Public Health that found teens are more likely to avoid pregnancy and STIs without sex education than if they get abstinence-only education.
Coram’s bill, known as House Bill 1032, expands a measure passed in 2013 that required all schools offering sex ed to make it comprehensive – in other words, programs could not discriminate against transgender, lesbian, gay or bisexual students and must teach students about sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence and contraceptives. But that initial bill did not provide money, leaving many poorer and rural districts without the funds for a sex ed program that would meet state requirements. The new bill would set aside $1 million to fund sex ed programs in schools that can’t afford them. Schools and students will not be required to offer or participate in sex ed programs.
The bill has already sent shock waves through Coloradans who are adamantly opposed to so-called comprehensive sex education, particularly with its new provisions that prohibit language that stigmatizes or shames people who are transgender, lesbian, gay or bisexual.
In January, the bill passed the House Health and Insurance Committee on a party-line vote after hours of emotional testimony from people concerned that comprehensive sex ed would normalize sexual deviancy, experiment with children’s identities and encourage them to be “abnormal.”
The bill highlights Coram’s unique approach on reproductive issues that sets him apart from his Republican colleagues. Like most Republicans in the Capitol, Coram would like to abolish abortions. But his plan to eliminate them involves providing easier access to contraceptives and sex education programs that steer clear of abstinence-only messages.
HB 1032 would create around 18 grants of $50,000 for school districts to fund a comprehensive sex ed program. The program would not teach kids how to have sex, but would arm them with the tools to protect themselves from disease and pregnancy regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, said Lizzy Hinkley, the reproductive rights policy counsel for the Colorado ACLU. The bill will get a second reading on the House floor Thursday morning.
Hinkley sees opponents to Coram’s bill as outliers in a state that recently elected the nation’s first openly gay governor, Jared Polis.
But Coram is also an outlier. In 2015, he fought to fund a state-run program that provides free IUDs to young women while Republican senators refused to pay for the program. The program had cut teen abortion rates in half, but it ran out of funding and was fighting for more, even as it received a national award for its work. At the time, Coram sported an IUD lapel pin on his jacket and framed the program as the best way to halt abortions.
“Lives do matter,” he said in 2015. “If we’re going to break the cycle of poverty, this is a very good tool.”
On Wednesday, Coram refused to discuss his support of the bill in detail, but referenced a column he wrote last week as an effort to dispel myths about comprehensive sex ed.
“Do schools and districts need to teach sex ed? Not at all. But if they do, it needs to be complete and medically accurate,” Coram wrote. “Does this bill prohibit schools from talking about abstinence? No. In fact, abstinence is a required component of complete sex ed.”