The Legislature comes back to work today to vote on a key bill that could improve the health of South Carolinians.

House Bill 3435, the Healthy Youth Amendment, is up for consideration by the eight-member House Education and Public Works subcommittee. This is the bill that would require comprehensive health education, including medically accurate, age-appropriate instruction in reproductive health.

It does not eliminate abstinence education. Rather, it says instruction should include “education on abstinence, contraception, and methods of disease prevention to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

It's fair to tell students, as the bill requires, that there are “risks associated with sexual activity outside of marriage.”

Unfortunately, many of them have already been exposed to those risks, but some lawmakers don't want to talk about that.

Comprehensive health

The bill also establishes certification requirements for teachers. We require statewide standards for reading and math, but there is no statewide standard for certifying people who give our students some of the most important instruction they will ever receive.

Some parents say this is none of the state's or school's business, and they'll tell their children what they need to know when they're ready. For many, that means a message that sex is off limits until marriage. Unfortunately, that approach isn't working, because half of them are already sexually active.

“When we know that over 50 percent of our teenagers are engaging in this activity, we just owe it to them to give them medically accurate information,” said state Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Without a comprehensive, standard approach to health education, our young people are at a lifelong and potentially life-altering disadvantage. The CDC says sexually active young people ages 15-19 are at higher risk of contracting STDs.

Tell Them, a grass-roots advocacy network based in Columbia, gives Berkeley County teens a medium health crisis risk, and teens in Charleston and Dorchester counties a high risk of health crisis. These predictions are based on teen birth rates, the percentage of youth living in poverty, and high school dropout rates.

Even though teen birth rates have dropped, our infant mortality rate remains high. Fewer children and teens having children would likely both reduce the infant mortality rate and reduce the high school dropout rate — reason enough to be in favor of the bill.

Another chance

It's up to our legislators and our educators to put squeamishness and personal agendas aside and do the right thing.

One committee member's “A” rating from the Palmetto Family Alliance is a potential obstacle. The alliance says that its mission is “to transform the culture in South Carolina by reclaiming the values and virtues of marriage, the traditional family model, and sexual purity.”

Of course, better sex education would actually strengthen the traditional family model. So maybe there's hope after all.