The sex ed battle rages on
by Eric Jackson
A coalition of groups that support sex education in the schools gathered after work and marched up Via España to the legislature on July 25. First among equals were the professionals, including psychologist and secular government advocate Celia Moreno and pediatrician and La Prensa columnist Xavier Saenz Llorens. The march also included former First Lady Vivian Fernández de Torrijos, former legislator Teresita Yániz de Arias and Panama United Way president Marcela Eleta de Brenes.
The argument about sex education in the schools has been ongoing in legislative proposals since 1999, with church-led groups always managing to get any serious proposal killed in committee. (The occasional suggestion of religious-based sex education has always foundered amidst infighting among Catholics and Evangelicals against a backdrop of secular government advocates who outnumber each of those religious factions.) At the end of the last legislative session the proposed Law 61 mandating sex education in the schools was first shorn of its references to guidebooks created under the auspices of the United Nations Population Fund and then passed in committee. (The suggested literature is being separately discussed and developed in the Ministry of Education.) But since the committee approved the proposal and sent it to the plenum for consideration the legislature has been fragmented and barely functioning. Although the new session started on July 1, only on July 25 were 10 of the National Assembly’s 15 standing committees installed. During the weeks of dysfunction the Panameñista caucus announced that it would support the legislation being sent back to committee, but there has been no vote on that and it’s not certain whether that caucus or the legislature as a whole would vote to do that. If the Panameñista caucus sticks together on the issue there would probably be enough PRD and Cambio Democratico votes to send the proposal back down.
When a sex education proposal gets sent back to committee in order to reach a consensus it has tended to disappear at least for a few years, but this time the majority in favor of sex education in the schools is more pronounced, with a mid-July Dichter & Neira poll showing Panamanians supporting it by 56 to 43 percent. If it gets sent back to the committee from whence it came — the Labor, Health and Development Committee — in its new configuration that panel includes Law 61’s proponent, physician and PRD deputy Crispiano Adames, committee chair Jorge Iván Arrocha, Mario Lazarus, Fernando Carrillo, José Castillo, Iván Picota, Juan Carlos Arango and Ana Matilde Gómez. There is a reasonable chance that the committee will pass it again and send it for a showdown in the entire legislature.
While those in favor of sex education were preparing their late afternoon gathering and early evening march, the Catholic Archdiocese was hosting a press conference with the leader of the Red Vida y Familia Ecuador, Amparo Medina, a right-wing activist who has led her country’s movement against sex education, birth control, abortion, gay rights and recognition of the transgendered. She was given time on TVN to promote her argument against sex education in Panama. There and at the press conference she was misidentified as a former aide for the United Nations Population Fund, which afterward issued a statement that she never worked for them. One of her claims is that sex education would do nothing to reduce the spread of the human papiloma virus or herpes because those maladies are spread by sweat rather than sexual contact — a claim that drew sharp rebukes from Dr. Sáez-Llorens.
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