Is it ethical to teach sex education?

Parents, unfortunately, cannot be relied upon to inform their children about the facts of life

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EDMONTON, AB, May 7, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The revised comprehensive sex education curriculum the Ontario government is introducing to Grades 1 through 12 this September will teach the biology of sexual reproduction and provide information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections, consent, and non-heterosexual orientations.

These additional elements have drawn the ire of many parents who believe that the new curriculum will be contrary to the moral views they wish to teach their children. This is not surprising: after all, sex is an inherently moral topic and no course of instruction about it can possibly be free of moral content. Any way of teaching sexuality, from Ontario’s comprehensive curriculum to the “abstinence-only” education offered in some American states, inevitably advances a moral point of view.

Too many parents incapable of providing sex education

The controversy, however, touches on a larger one of just what public schools should be teaching children. An argument can be made that schools ought to be avoiding moral topics altogether, leaving these to parents who have, in our society, broad sovereignty over their children’s upbringing. This is part of the reason our society does not mandate religious instruction in public schools and why instructors are not allowed to express strong points of view on political and social issues.

The controversy touches on a larger one of just what public schools should teach children

Why shouldn’t sex be excluded from the curriculum as well? Notes and informative literature could be sent home to parents urging them to talk about sexual matters with their children.

Parents, unfortunately, cannot be relied upon to inform their children about the facts of life, including sex. One of the primary reasons we have public schools in the first place is because too many parents are either incapable of teaching, or simply won’t, their children what they need to know to thrive in the world, whether the topic is mathematics, literacy, or sexuality.

Society at large bears the cost of such ignorance, especially when the topic is sex: a teenager uninformed about sexual health beyond abstinence is more likely to become (or to make someone) pregnant or to acquire a sexually-transmitted infection, creating costs for the social welfare and health systems we all pay for with our taxes. That, if nothing else, is a compelling reason for state-sponsored sex education.

Beyond these pragmatic concerns I would argue further that depriving children of the full knowledge about sexuality is an offence against the rights of a future citizen. Knowledge, after all, is necessary to make good decisions in life; it is therefore wrong to willfully deprive someone of access to it. As with horses and water, you can lead people to knowledge but cannot make them think is no excuse to stop someone from acquiring knowledge in the first place.

Schools do not have unquestionable influence over children

I would urge those parents who believe Ontario’s curriculum contradicts the sexual morals they want to teach their children to remember that schools do not have monolithic or unquestionable influence over how their children turn out. Parenting has a strong influence on children’s development of morals.

There is nothing stopping parents from adding a gloss to what their children learn in school, to tell them they do not agree with it and to offer alternative teaching. If they argue that the schools are corrupting their efforts to teach their children by offering an alternative, it is best they remember that virtue isn’t virtue without knowledge of an alternative.

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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