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Maggie PhillipsMay 08, 2023
Photo courtesy of iStock.

“Comprehensive sex education” is one of those phrases, like “drag queen story hour,” that is guaranteed to set off a firestorm on social media. Last year, Joan Walsh wrote for The Nation about parental objections to school districts adopting comprehensive sex ed, which she defined as “the teaching of basic anatomy and reproduction, plus all the complications and joy that go along with sexuality.” Catholics are generally not seen as allies of such curricula; the wide-ranging and occasionally explicit material suggest to many a kind of mission creep, intended to indoctrinate young minds with ideology surrounding gender and sexuality that contradicts church teaching.

But Catholic parents who oppose C.S.E. may be missing an opportunity to advocate for something true and good that supports the formation of all young people, not just Catholics. Fertility awareness, which many Catholics are familiar with as part of natural family planning, can make a sex-ed curriculum truly comprehensive. By teaching young people just how fertility works, and not simply how reproduction happens, we can change lives.

Fertility awareness, which many Catholics are familiar with as part of natural family planning, can make a sex-ed curriculum truly comprehensive.

C.S.E. is intended as an improvement on the simplistic “you will get pregnant and die” approach to sex ed memorably depicted in the film “Mean Girls”—that is, sex is scary because you can get pregnant or infected with something, so don’t do it until some unspecified time in the future (but since you will do it anyway, use condoms). C.S.E. often includes lessons in how to recognize and report sexual abuse, with older students also learning about consent, contraception and abortion, and issues of gender identification and sexual orientation. (The controversial Rights, Respect, Responsibility curriculum is one example.) Some commonly used material is certainly at odds with Catholic teaching, but there are also lessons about interpersonal relationships that address current concerns for both religious and secular leaders, including the epidemic of depression and anxiety issues among teenage girls in particular.

Where does fertility awareness come in? If sex education is narrowly focused “on the woman and on what she can do to prevent pregnancy, women have this sense that we’re the problem,” Dr. Marguerite Duane told me in a recent phone interview. This approach gives the impression that natural parts of the life cycle, including menstruation, are things young women should ignore or try to minimize. Fertility awareness education in adolescence can fight that misperception.

Dr. Duane is the co-founder and executive director of Facts about Fertility, an organization dedicated to providing education about fertility awareness. She teaches fertility awareness not only to women and adolescent girls but also to medical professionals who are not always fully aware of the science behind monitoring ovulation cycles to address infertility and its leading causes.

She said it is important to teach girls “a healthy respect” for “the way their bodies are designed” and to understand menstrual cycles and ovulation, rather than to dismiss or avoid them as pathologies. Without such early education, she noted, she has seen women misinterpreting what were in fact ordinary, healthy signs of fertility as indications that they had contracted an infection, or even sexually transmitted diseases.

Without early education, she has seen women misinterpreting what were in fact ordinary, healthy signs of fertility.

Dr. Duane’s organization shows how concerned Catholic parents might work with their children’s schools to integrate this life-changing information into curricula. The group works “with people who have very different views on other issues related to women’s health,” Dr. Duane said. “Nobody’s ovaries are Catholic.”

Parents should certainly take a lead in giving their children an accurate picture about fertility and reproduction, but an emphasis on parents’ rights can create a blind spot in the debate over how sensitive topics should be discussed at school. What of the children who have no one at home to model a healthy, loving relationship, respectful boundaries, or responsible parenting, let alone speak with them about sexuality? As I point out in an article I recently wrote for Tablet magazine about C.S.E., some states that lead the nation in teen pregnancy also lead the nation in single-parent households. In this context, concerned parents may want to consider how classroom instruction surrounding sexuality might benefit not only their own children but also their children’s classmates.

Both C.S.E. advocates and parents who want to stress traditional sexual ethics can agree that healthy relationships, self-respect, responsibility and boundary-setting are desired outcomes for young people. But a cooperative effort to include fertility awareness in C.S.E. curricula could also help to lessen the animosities that often stem from differing approaches to the sensitive topic of sexuality. In joining such an effort, Catholic parents could reduce misunderstandings even if differences remain on more contentious subjects, and establish a level of mutual trust.

Any Catholic parents or church leaders who urge families to simply opt out of sex-ed programs are at risk of more than siloing themselves from a culture they feel has gone astray. They also are missing an opportunity to serve as an example of Christian charity. If Catholic parents and church leaders on the one hand, and public education officials on the other, make a genuinely good-faith effort at mutual engagement, the result may be more productive than a political victory for one side.

[Related: “Most Catholics don’t use Natural Family Planning. Can better marriage prep change that?”]

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