AUGUSTA – When state Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, 57, was growing up in New Jersey, teens were encouraged not to have sex outside of marriage. “Parents, the community, schools, everybody reinforced that. Now there isn’t any reinforcement of that. That troubles me.”

Saying there’s an “epidemic” of kids having sex in Maine, Snowe-Mello is sponsoring legislation that would allow school boards to offer abstinence education in place of, or in addition to, family life classes for grades seven-12.

While both sides agree abstinence is good for teens, there has been plenty of opposition to the bill, including some from Maine’s top health official, who said Wednesday the opposite of a sex “epidemic” is occurring.

Maine’s teen pregnancy and abortion rates are down, and abstinence rates are up among high-schoolers, said Dr. Dora Mills, director of the Maine Bureau of Health, adding that what Maine schools are doing is working.

Abstinence is one of 10 components taught in family health classes, state officials said.

But Snowe-Mello, a Republican representing Poland and Auburn, insists that abstinence is not getting the attention it deserves.

A grandmother and member of a Baptist church in Auburn, Snowe-Mello sponsored the bill “to get the discussion out there,” she said. “Kids, 11 and 12 years old are sexually active. It’s very common in Maine. We have an epidemic. … Kids are treating sex as recreation, as something to do, instead of believing this should only be between people who love each other and are committed to each other.”

Saying she’s attended several seminars sponsored by groups that promote faith-based values, Snowe-Mello said being sexually active too young can hurt teens physically – with the potential for disease and pregnancy – and emotionally.

Movies, television and music bombard kids with messages encouraging sex, she said. Too many kids are not hearing from their parents and schools about why they should abstain, Snowe-Mello said.

“I hear that some schools are doing a great job” in teaching abstinence, but in others the emphasis is birth control and safe sex, she said. “I don’t think children understand the ramifications of what they’re doing.”

Dottie Perham-Whittier of Lewiston, an advocate of True Love Waits, a Christian abstinence campaign, agreed, saying educators should not lump kids into a “they’re going to do it anyway” category and therefore just teach them about safe sex.

Saying she’s talked to kids who have deeply regretted being sexually active, Perham-Whittier said teens “need to hear it’s OK to wait.”

Others supporting the legislation are the Christian Civic League of Maine, Concerned Women for America of Maine and Heritage of Maine, a federally funded community-based abstinence program.

Those opposing include the Family Planning Association of Maine, the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Woman’s Lobby, the Maine Bureau of Health and the Maine Public Health Association.

Mills said she agrees that abstinence is a critical part of sex education, but disagrees that only abstinence be taught. Maine public schools should continue to teach “full information about reproductive health,” she said.

When students are armed with all the facts, most will make healthy decisions, Mills said. The problems with abstinence legislation “is there’s a gag order on teaching anything else,” including birth control and safe sex. That, Mills said, “would be a serious problem.”

The Legislature’s Education Committee voted 9-4 against Snowe-Mello’s bill, L.D. 1639, with Democrats voting against and Republicans largely for.

The four votes were enough to send the bill to the House and Senate for debate in the coming weeks.

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