By Bob Bernick
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah would become the first state to ban public schools from teaching contraception as a way of preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases under a bill given final legislative approval by state lawmakers.
The measure, which cleared Utah's Republican-controlled House and Senate mainly along party-line votes, would also bar instruction on homosexuality or other aspects of human sexuality except for materials that encourage abstinence before marriage.
Supporters of the bill, which Utah's Republican governor was widely expected to sign into law, argued that sex education was best left up to parents.
"Utah is by far the most restrictive policy out there," said Rebecca Wind, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health policy.
"There are no other states that ... don't allow birth control discussion at all, in the way that the Utah legislation does. So it is unique in that respect," she added.
With Senate passage on Tuesday on a 19-10 vote, the bill goes to Governor Gary Herbert, who he has not yet taken a public stand on the measure.
But Herbert is running for re-election this year and will face conservative Republican Party delegates in a state nominating convention this spring ahead of a possible primary vote in June.
At present, Utah school districts can offer sex education classes, with some restrictions, and parents decide whether their teenage children can take the elective class or not.
Thirty-seven states require information on abstinence to be included in the sex education curriculum of public schools. Of those states, 26 require abstinence be stressed as the only sure-fire way of preventing pregnancy or infection with sexually transmitted diseases, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The Wisconsin state Assembly is expected to vote next week on a measure to emphasize abstinence in sex education, which cleared the state Senate in November.
Guttmacher said some states lack a statewide policy on sex education, leaving choices about reproductive-health curriculum entirely up to the local level. Under Utah's newly passed legislation, public school districts could offer an abstinence-only curriculum or no sex education at all.
Democratic lawmakers opposed to the bill argued that not all parents can be expected to adequately inform their children about birth control and reproductive health. They said curtailing sex education in schools would lead to an increase in teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases.
But several Republican senators said the public school was the wrong place for individuals outside of a child's family to discuss sexual intercourse, homosexuality or specific sex acts with students.
A study published last month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that states with more comprehensive sex education programs had lower teen birth rates. But the research also found those differences appeared to be offset by social and political factors, such as race, income levels, crime rates, abortion laws and religion.
The Utah Parents and Teacher Association opposed the bill, but conservative groups, such as the Utah Eagle Forum, supported its passage.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)