COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio law states tweens and teens are old enough to have children, but not old enough to learn sexual education in schools.
Abortion is restricted in Ohio, but so is education. Ohio is the only state in the country without health education standards.
With the combination of the lack of sexual education and with abortion being prohibited at six-weeks, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio (CDF) Executive Director Tracy Nájera believes the state will be seeing higher teen pregnancy rates.
"Of those states that have just abstinence only teaching as part of the requirements, which is what Ohio does, there is a statistical significantly higher rates of teen pregnancy in those states," Nájera said.
More than 14,600 Ohioans aged 10 to 19 became pregnant in 2016, according to state data.
Ohio is ranked in the top five worst states in the country for health grades by the Health Policy Institute of Ohio (HPIO). Out of the 50 states and Washington D.C., Ohio is 47.
The rank is due to "lack of attention and effective action" with children, equity and prevention. Children experience adversity and trauma at a higher rate than other states, marginalized Ohioans face large systemic disadvantages and the state spends very little on investment in public health, the report showed.
HPIO found that only three other states spend less on public health than Ohio does.
The child has few choices if they get pregnant, but they may have never received sexual education to learn the risks. The state gives total control over sex education to local districts.
"Ohio is the only state in the country without health standards to offer guidance to youth about what they should know about nutrition, drugs, mental behavioral health, sex, skills that they need to be able to make those healthy choices for themselves," Nájera added. "When we say knowledge is power, truly, it's having that knowledge about what are safe practices."
House Bill 110, the 2022-2023 budget, had another bill, H.B. 240, snuck into it.
H.B. 240, sponsored by Republican state Reps. Sarah Fowler Arthur, from Ashtabula, and Reggie Stoltzfus, from Paris Township,states any kind of venereal disease education instructionmust emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is the only 100% effective protection against unintended pregnancy, STDs and AIDS.
It goes on to say course materials must stress that students should abstain from sexual activity until after marriage and must teach the potential "physical, psychological, emotional and social side effects" of sexual activity outside of marriage.
In addition, schools must teach children that conceiving kids "out of wedlock" is likely to have "harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society."
The bill also states that educators must "emphasize adoption" as the option for unintended pregnancies.
There is nothing in this bill, or in the Ohio Revised Code, that states this information needs to be medically accurate or comprehensive.
If a school district wants to have additional instruction to abstinence-only education, the district has to notify all guardians that they are offering this. When telling families, the district has to share the name of the instructors, vendor name if applicable and the name of the curriculum being used.
A student can only learn this information if the guardian has given written permission. There will also be an annual audit of schools to ensure they are following the requirements.
Conservative lobbying group Ohio Value Voters President John Stover was grateful to see this provision make it into the budget.
"School districts should be required to provide the parents with the material," he said. "If the parent is interested in having the child in that learning, then they will opt their children in."
The state shouldn’t dictate what is taught in school districts for sex ed and that parents should have the final say, he added.
There will probably be more teen pregnancies due to the six-week abortion ban, he acknowledged, but comprehensive sex education has no place in Ohio schools.
"I think what we'll see now is, hopefully, teenagers become much more cognizant of the outcome and the responsibilities that they will have," Stover said.
But how can children know about the outcome and the responsibilities without being taught in school?
"I believe that there are good health standards and there are poorly written health standards," he said. "I think we have the ability to identify those things that should and should not be taught in a classroom."
If Ohio wanted to create health standards with the current requirements, he said there is room to compromise.
"As long as it's appropriate and we're not dealing with a means to backdoor, you know, indoctrination of comprehensive sex education with children, I think that Ohio can, in fact, see health standards," he added.
Today in the Ohio Senate:— Morgan Trau (@MorganTrau) June 7, 2022
Back in March, I covered how Erin’s Law had been stalled for the fifth time in 10 years.
The bipartisan bill that would combat child sexual abuse has a hearing NOW at 11 a.m.
⬇️ @WEWS @brigidekelly @LippsforOhio https://t.co/x3yXRR3bED pic.twitter.com/cc4XllSE4D
However, abstinence-only education, which can fear monger about healthy sexual activity, has been proven to not work, Nájera said.
This data is backed up extensively.
University of Georgia researchers found that abstinence-only education is "ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S."
"Our analysis adds to the overwhelming evidence indicating that abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy rates," the researchers said. "Advocates for continued abstinence-only education need to ask themselves: If teens don't learn about human reproduction, including safe sexual health practices to prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs, and how to plan their reproductive adult life in school, then when should they learn it, and from whom?"
Stover argues that people who want more should go somewhere where they can opt their children in.
The argument of sexual education has bled over into the child abuse prevention curriculum ideas, frustrating advocates against child sex abuse. Ohio is also one of the few remaining states that doesn’t require child sex abuse prevention to be taught in schools.
Bipartisan legislators have tried five times in 10 years to pass Erin's Law, now H.B. 105. The bill was introduced to this General Assembly by state Reps. Brigid Kelly, a Democrat from Cincinnati and Scott Lipps, a Republican from Franklin.
Erin's Law, named after child sex abuse survivor Erin Merryn, would require each school district, community school and STEM school to provide annual age-appropriate instruction in child sex abuse prevention. It also would incorporate that prevention into its required training for teachers and other professionals.
"There are plenty of kids in Ohio that are going to go to bed tonight keeping the same secret I kept as a child, waiting to be taught in school, waiting to be given this education, to empower them that they will be believed and how to speak up," Merryn said during testimony in June.
The bill has had no opponent testimony, however, a few republicans and the Center for Christian Virtue have spoken out against it, saying that it teaches sexual education and keeps parents in the dark. During the hearing, state Sen. Sandra O'Brien, a Republican from Ashtabula, warned that not every parent would be able to check their child's curriculum.
"I am sorry about what happened to you, there is evil in the world and there will always be evil," the senator said. "I am concerned of losing the innocence of our young children."
Kelly and Lipps emphasized that this legislation is catered to age groups and would be taught in an appropriate matter depending on age.
"This bill does not establish a health curriculum and this bill does not establish a curriculum for sex education," Kelly said. "This is about sex abuse prevention, this is about sexual violence prevention."
Stover also doesn't like the bill.
"You could have a child beginning in kindergarten up to the 12th grade and devoting two or three classes per day to sexual violence, but it still is not going to prohibit, as was the case here, from a in-this-case ten-year-old-girl from being raped," Stover said.
He is referencing the story that gained national attention as a talking point for abortion rights supporters. A 27-year-old man was arrested and indicted for allegedly raping a 10-year-old girl from Ohio who later traveled to Indiana to get an abortion.
"It certainly was a tragedy, there's no doubt about that," Stover said, then bringing up the immigration status of the suspect.
Nájera had to take a second while speaking with News 5 about how the 10-year-old probably wouldn't have known what was happening to her, but she could still have the baby.
"The 10-year-old who was was raped, they wouldn't have had any kind of help seeking education in their classroom to identify—" she sighed. "Not having that support of knowing 'I should go to an adult' or 'I should talk to someone, I can talk to someone without being blamed for the actions of the other person.' Wow."
The lack of access to full comprehensive care could mean more teen pregnancies, she added. The births also disproportionately impact many marginalized, low income people who can't afford the health care or to travel to other states for care, she said.
"Comprehensive sex education, comprehensive health education — these things are key to making sure that young people have the full information skills, information about the risks and benefits that could be learned in all aspects of behavioral health and just health in general," the advocate said. "Not having this in place is a disservice to children and to youth."
The lack of standards has always been a problem, but the stakes are now higher, Nájera said. The least Ohio could do is educate about pregnancy before children have to have children.