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Sex (Education) better in Mexico, says Houston Chronicle

30 August 2006

Cause and effect

Mexico gets serious about fighting teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseaseCopyright 2006 Houston Chronicle August 29, 2006

As it did to great effect in the 1970s, Mexico is setting out to improve public health through science. If only more U.S. leaders could be as pragmatic.After years of church and government encouraging huge families, Mexico’s government saw the light on population control 40 years ago. Thanks to family planning clinics, free birth control and education, Mexican families’ average family size dropped from seven children in 1968 to two today.That success, which has already improved countless lives, may well raise Mexico’s standard of living and slow emigration in upcoming decades.

Now the government of President Vicente Fox wants to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s gone to work with utter practicality.

The program’s centerpiece is comprehensive sex education for youngsters. Government-mandated textbooks frankly explain topics such as masturbation and homosexuality, noting that there’s nothing wrong with either.

Church leaders and conservative followers object strongly. Catholic leaders have told governors to replace the new books. The texts’ clinical tone, the bishop of Tehuacan warned, could unleash “sinful behavior.”

The controversy, as well as the concern about pregnancy and disease, echoes similar debates in this country. What is different is the Mexican parents’ and government’s bold defense of science over shibboleth.

“It is scientifically proven that information does not lead to promiscuity,” the president of a 19-million-member parents group asserted.

“On the contrary,” he added, “it helps protect our youths.”

Mexico’s nearly 90 percent Roman Catholic population has a long tradition of not taking church teachings too literally. Maintaining church-state separation is a national passion.

Unlike the United States, Mexico’s government remains largely centralized — and wields heavy influence on local education standards.

This is not to say that Mexicans, by nature conservative, won’t undergo real tensions over this campaign. Some wonder if it’s a gauntlet thrown down to test conservative President-elect Felipe Calderon.

But Transborder Institute scholar David Shirk says Calderon, whose contested victory was backed this week by a tribunal, probably wants no further controversy. Instead, Shirk predicts, Calderon will back the current government’s status quo — and thus the sex education program and new books.

If so, Mexico will be the richer. Fewer children will be ignorant of, and vulnerable to, sexual abuse. Fewer teens will get pregnant, and fewer women will seek illegal abortions. What a far-reaching gift for a country with so many challenges.

There have been some complaints from the usual suspects, but Mexico has an advantage over the U.S. There just aren’t enough scientists to go around, to waste good science on junk theories. You won’t find anyone spinning some plausible theory to convince an uneducated local school board that “abstinance education” or some other nonsense is “scientific” and deserves to be heard in the classroom.

There aren’t locally elected school boards to fight the curriculum, and Mexican parents seem to expect schools to EDUCATE their children, not justify their own prejudices. The idea of dolling up a religious theory as “intellegent design” as a half-assed way of not teaching biology never crosses anyone’s mind. Elitist, sure… but education is elitist in some sense. And, in Mexico, religious fundamentalism doesn’t drive public policy — as it does in Iran, or the United States, for example.

Oh sure, you have “ultramontanes” (Catholic reactionary) and some in PAN — like Marta Fox — are more synarchist (fascism adapted to late 19th century Catholic social teachings) than democratic, and the Church is listened to in PAN administrations, but people more or less assume teachers know what they’re doing, and expect their kids to be smarter than they were — or at least better educated. It’s one of the things the Revolution did right — educating the people — and something important enough to be in the Constitution.

I admit I was shocked about two years ago when Araceli asked me to take her 11-year old kid to Dr. Simi to pick up condoms for his health class project. What shocked me was that Ara was usually broke from paying school bills for Mario — aka “el Bart Simpson de Mexico.” Somewhat “discipline challenged” she was sending him to a very strict (and very expensive) private school run by French nuns.

Private education probably is better than public education in Mexico. I always thought one of the more bone-headed ideas World Bankers had was privatizing eduction, or at least allowing competition in what should be a basic human right (and is, in the Mexican Constitution). Still, the sisters followed the National curriculum, and that included health education — and learning what condoms were for before you actually needed the things.

And so it goes… the public schools aren’t teaching foreign languages (mostly English) as well as they should (there are some pretty poor English teachers in Mexico), but they are teaching languages in grade schools. The kids are learning math. They’re learning the SCIENTIFIC facts about human sexuality. What they’re not learning is “intellegent design” and “abstinance only education”.

When this reaches the right-wing blogosphere (give it a day or two), I’ll be curious to see the “spin” — I’ll bet the fighting keyboarders of the Free Republic and their allies see this as another plot to undermine the U.S. and sap us of our precious bodily fluids. Or, even more likely, they’ll claim that PAN is really “Socialist”, though what socialism has to do with birth control and healthy kids is beyond my comprehension.

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