Republicans in Utah say they were caught off-guard last week when Governor Gary Herbert vetoed an abstinence-only sex education bill that had easily passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature.
“I'm still in shock,” says Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, which worked closely with legislators supporting the bill. Herbert, a Republican, had indicated to her that he supported the bill only weeks before he vetoed it, she says. “It never entered into anyone's mind that we were headed in a direction that would be anything other than him signing the bill.”
The legislation, proposed by Representative Bill Wright, would have made it illegal to discuss contraception other than abstinence in the classroom. It drew protests in the capital after it passed, and the state's Parent Teacher Association, among other groups, came out against it. The restrictions went further than what a national abstinence education organization advocates.
“Even some of the widely used abstinence-only curricula would not have been able to be used,” says Mary Anne Mosack, director of state initiatives for the National Abstinence Education Foundation. “Abstinence-only programs do talk about contraception.”
Herbert's veto came days after Wisconsin lawmakers passed a bill that would require schools to emphasize abstinence as the best form of contraception. It's awaiting approval from Governor Scott Walker. Last year, North Dakota became the 37th state to require that health education include information about abstinence, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. Of those states, 26, including Utah, require that abstinence be stressed.
Utah's current law does allow for a “factual discussion of contraception,” says Mark Peterson, a spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education, but that component is optional and parents must “opt-in” if they want their children to participate.
The majority of parents in the state have chosen to opt-in, Herbert said in a statement, which is part of why he decided to veto the bill. “I am unwilling to conclude that the State knows better than Utah's parents as to what is best for their children,” he said.
Wright said he sponsored the bill after learning that the State Office of Education had posted on its website education materials created by Planned Parenthood and that some schools were using these curricular materials. The education office subsequently removed them and terminated its relationship with Planned Parenthood, according to the (Salt Lake City) Deseret News.
While Wright said he anticipates reintroducing similar legislation at some point, he said he doesn't plan to try to override Herbert's veto.
The governor is up for re-election this year and his opponents in the Republican primary questioned the timing of the veto, issued one day after the first stage in the state's multi-step nominating caucuses. “It's clearly political,” one of Herbert's top opponents, former state representative Morgan Philpot, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Herbert is considered a conservative Republican, says Matthew Burbank, an associate political science professor at University of Utah, and Herbert's opponents will likely use the veto against him, Burbank says. But while the caucus-nomination process can be unpredictable, Burbank doesn't think the veto will ultimately harm Herbert's chance for another term.