Educators speak out on abortion curriculum bill

afrank@newsobserver.comJune 26, 2013 

— Cyrene Hardy, a health and physical education teacher at Athens Drive High School, says she never discusses abortion in her classes. When students ask about it, she suggests they talk to their parents or counselors.

But a bill the House tentatively approved Wednesday will require her and other teachers to educate students in seventh grade and above that abortion can cause premature births. Hardy said she wouldn’t mind the change in curriculum if it’s based in fact.

“I don’t mind teaching facts, saying ‘These are the statistics,’ and I think kids should know the statistics,” she said.

Opponents of the bill, however, argue that other research calls the bill into question.

Absent from much of both sides of the debate are the views of health instructors who would actually be delivering the information to North Carolinian teenagers.

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex who worked on the legislation, said he doesn’t know of any K-12 teachers involved in the bill-drafting process – though two UNC-Chapel Hill professors and a representative from the Department of Public Instruction did contribute. Similarly, a chief sponsor of the bill, Sen. Warren Daniel of Morganton, said he couldn’t remember whether he’d spoken to any teachers about the change.

“The intent is not to shock students,” Daniel said in an interview. “It’s not to have inflammatory curriculum. But these modifiable behaviors can increase their reproductive health in the future.”

Health teachers try to avoid controversial topics like abortion in the classroom, keeping mum and directing students to discuss right-to-life and the freedom to choose with their parents, said Kim Hargett, a Union County physical education teacher.

Hargett, who teaches at Marshville Elementary School, said she doesn’t speak for North Carolina educators at large but said other health educators in her community are nervous about the implications of the bill.

“It’s really going to place the educators in a difficult position, because … it is such an emotional, political topic that it is really difficult to have a discussion and remain neutral,” she said. “The concern is that all the energy and the air in the room will go into an abortion debate, as opposed to relaying information.”

A range of risks

The idea to bring education on abortion into the curriculum started with a proposal Dr. Martin McCaffrey, a pediatrics professor at UNC-CH, sent to the state’s Child Fatality Task Force. The task force approved of McCaffrey’s suggestion, and Stam and Daniel drafted the bill.

Stam doesn’t waver on his support for the curriculum change.

“There is overwhelming statistical literature that preterm births are significantly caused by previous induced abortions,” he said.

Dr. John Thorp of the UNC School of Medicine, who worked with McCaffrey on the bill, told a House committee that “the relative risk is modest at best,” but because of the “high uptake” of abortion in reproductive-age women, the risk is “quite important.”

Lawmakers queued up six at a time to debate Senate Bill 132 before it passed its second reading Wednesday in a vote of 73-44.

Both sides debating the bill gathered scores of studies to support their claims. Supporters argued it as fact, touting a growing body of research, while dissenters cited a lack of concrete evidence. Morality also factored in.

“Our teenagers need to understand that when they make a decision, there is a consequence,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes of Hickory, the House majority leader.

Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Public Health Association don’t recognize abortion as a cause of preterm birth, Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson, said during the committee meeting.

When asked about those organizations, Stam responded that they were “behind the times.”

Some lawmakers disagreed with the use of the term “cause” to describe the association between induced abortions and premature birth. “Risk” is more appropriate, said Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat.

“A cause has never been established in any definitive term,” she added. “Correlation doesn’t mean causation.”

An amendment aimed to make the language open-ended to give teachers more flexibility in the classroom failed.

The bill is expected to get its final approval in the House on Thursday. It then returns to the Senate for concurrence before heading to the governor’s desk.

Staff writer John Frank contributed.

Frank: 919-829-4870

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