BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate approved a bill Thursday that would require school districts that offer a comprehensive sex education curriculum rely on "medically accurate, age-appropriate" information.
Supporters say the bill — which was approved by a 33-2 vote — doesn't mandate that schools adopt the curriculum and still allows parents to opt their children out of the program.
Those who support comprehensive sex education say it not only helps teach children about their bodies and relationships, but also helps delay the initiation of sex and reduces the frequency of sex, the number of sexual partners and incidences of unprotected sex.
"Sex education is essential to our young people's health, personal relationships and life goals," Democratic state Sen. Sal DiDomenico said during Thursday's debate. "Our state's youth deserve to have the informed resources and skills they need to make smart decisions to protect their health."
DiDomenico said the final decision to adopt the curriculum remains with local schools.
"This is not a mandate," he said. "They get to choose if they want to offer this or not."
An amendment adopted during Thursday's debate ensures parents will have at least 30 days to review the materials before deciding whether to withdraw their children from coursework.
Under the bill, sex education must be appropriate for students regardless of gender, race, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The lessons would touch on a range of topics like the physical, social and emotional changes of human development; human anatomy, reproduction and sexual development; and the benefits of abstinence and delaying sexual activity. Other topics would include the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies by the use of contraceptives and the communication skills needed to form respectful relationships free of violence.
Age-appropriate information would also be included about gender identity and sexual orientation for all students.
Jennifer Hart, director of education for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said there is currently no guarantee young people in the state are receiving the sex education they need.
"Comprehensive sex education curricula teach young people the benefits of delaying sex, how to prevent unintended pregnancy and protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, and how to form healthy, respectful, consent-based relationships," Hart said in a statement.
Advocates also say sex education can combat sexual assault, harassment, teen dating violence and disparities in unintended pregnancy rates.
Critics say the bill introduces explicit information about sex to students who may be too young.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, faulted the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, saying it is giving Planned Parenthood more influence over what children are being taught about sex than their parents.
"Senators voting for this bill apparently want to instruct 12-year-olds on the finer points of anal sex," Beckwith said. "The proper term for teaching a child that age how to perform sexual acts is not education, it's 'grooming.'"
The bill now heads to the Massachusetts House, which like the state Senate has long been controlled by Democrats. Similar sex education bills from the Senate have died in the House in recent years.
If approved, the bill would take effect for the 2020-2021 school year.