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Ryan Johnson, Published April 01 2013

NDSU researcher touts benefits of sex ed program

FARGO – An amendment that could halt a new voluntary sex education program represents the state’s “latest attack on women and families,” Molly Secor-Turner said.

But the North Dakota State University assistant professor, one of two faculty members to receive a $1.2 million federal grant to launch the program, said it also could have an unintended consequence that runs counter to the amendment supporters’ other work this year.

“As you know, the North Dakota Legislature enacted the most severe abortion ban in the nation, which was then signed by our governor,” she said. “The same legislators who are attempting to outlaw abortion in North Dakota are also attacking the very programs that can eliminate unintended pregnancy, and therefore the need for abortion in the first place.”

Secor-Turner and fellow NDSU faculty member Brandy Randall were awarded the three-year grant last September. They teamed up with Planned Parenthood to launch the comprehensive sex education and life skills program to at-risk Fargo teens ages 15 to 19 with parental consent.

But Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, sponsored a March 18 amendment to Senate Bill 2368 that would prohibit the use of government funds to “contract with, or provide financial or other support to individuals, organizations, or entities performing, inducing, referring for, or counseling in favor of, abortions.”

Secor-Turner said the amendment was added in a way that prevented any public hearing or testimony, which is why she and two national adolescent health experts arranged a teleconference with reporters Monday to make their pitch for ditching the rule.

“We’re just hoping to be able to get some of this information out to the public and maybe the legislators involved to help them understand how important this work is and how dangerous the amendment really is,” she said.

The amendment and SB 2368, which would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks except for medical emergencies, will be discussed in conference committee for the first time this morning.

It’s an “incredibly unusual” legislative move to regulate sex education, according to Guttmacher Institute State Issues Manager Elizabeth Nash. She said it marks the first time a state has gone after a higher education institution for providing such a program through the federal government when no state agency was involved.

“We’re really seeing something altogether new in North Dakota and altogether moving in the wrong direction,” she said.

John Santelli, chairman of Columbia University’s Helibrunn Department of Population and Family Health, said the work of Secor-Turner and others could find more insight into how to best tailor sex education for specific groups, such as the at-risk youth who are predominantly homeless or in the foster care system that would be targeted through the Fargo program.

He said there’s often “more heat than light” on the topic of sex education, and said “political interference” is common. Still, he said there’s a consensus among medical and scientific experts that it’s an important effort that doesn’t belong in the hands of politicians.

“They think these kinds of matters should be left to health educators,” he said. “They should be left to the health professionals.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587