This column was written by Byron York.
In recent days, a consensus has developed among the Obama campaign and commentators in the press that has decided to lie his way to the White House. Exhibit A in this new consensus is McCain's ad, released last week, claiming that 's "one accomplishment" in the field of education was "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners."
Within moments of the ad's appearance, the Obama campaign called it "shameful and downright perverse." The legislation in question, a bill in the Illinois State Senate that was supported but not sponsored by Obama, was, according to Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, "written to protect young children from sexual predators" and had nothing to do with comprehensive sex education for kindergartners. In a stinging final shot, Burton added, "Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn't define what honor was. Now we know why."
Newspaper, magazine, and television commentators quickly piled on. "The kindergarten ad flat-out lies," wrote the New York Times, arguing that "at most, kindergarteners were to be taught the dangers of sexual predators." The Washington Post wrote that "McCain's 'Education' Spot is Dishonest, Deceptive." And in a column in The Hill, the influential blogger Josh Marshall called the sex-education spot "a rancid, race-baiting ad based on [a] lie. Willie Horton looks mild by comparison."
The condemnation has been so widespread that the Obama campaign has begun to sense success in placing the "McCain-is-a-liar" storyline in the press. But before accepting the story at face value, it might first be a good idea to examine the bill in question, look at the statements made by its supporters at the time it was introduced, talk to its sponsors today (at least the ones who will consent to speak), and find answers to a few basic questions. What were the bill's provisions? Why was it written? Was it really just, or even mostly, about inappropriate advances? And the bottom-line question: Is McCain's characterization of it unfair?
21st-CENTURY SEX EDUCATION
The bill in question was Senate Bill 99, introduced in the Senate in February 2003. Its broad purpose was to change and update portions of Illinois's existing laws concerning sex education. (The text of the bill is here, and everyone interested in the issue should take a look at it.)
When the bill was introduced, a coalition of groups including the Illinois Public Health Association, the Illinois State Medical Society, the Cook County Department of Public Health, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council and others issued a press release headlined "Coalition of Legislators, Physicians and Organizations Bring Illinois Into the 21st Century with Omnibus Healthcare Package." It was a three-part campaign; Senate Bill 99, covering "medically accurate sex education," was the first part, with two other bills addressing "funding for family planning services for women in need" and "contraceptive equity in health insurance."
According to the press release, Senate Bill 99 required that "if a public school teaches sex education, family life education, and comprehensive health education courses, all materials and instruction must be medically and factually accurate." The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Carol Ronen, was quoted saying, "It teaches students about the advantages of abstinence, while also giving them the realistic information they need about the prevention of an unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections." The release contained no mention of sexual predators or inappropriate touching.
What, specifically, was the bill designed to do? It appears to have had three major purposes:
Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades 6 through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention, transmission and spread of AIDS.Senate Bill 99 struck out grade six, changing it to kindergarten, in addition to making a few other changes in wording. It read:
Each class or course in comprehensive sex education in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV.
Course material and instruction shall teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.The proposed bill eliminated all those passages and replaced them with wording like this:
Course material and instruction shall stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage…
[Classes] shall emphasize that abstinence is the expected norm in that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against unwanted teenage pregnancy [and] sexually transmitted diseases…
Course material and instruction shall include a discussion of sexual abstinence as a method to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.The bill gave parents and guardians the right to take their children out of sex-ed classes by presenting written objections. The bill also specified that "all sex education courses that discuss sexual activity or behavior…be age and developmentally appropriate." And, after covering a number of other provisions, the bill addressed the issue of inappropriate advances:
Course material and instruction shall present the latest medically factual information regarding both the possible side effects and health benefits of all forms of contraception, including the success and failure rates for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV…
Course material and instruction shall teach pupils to not make unwanted physical and verbal sexual advances and how to say no to unwanted sexual advances and shall include information about verbal, physical, and visual sexual harassment, including without limitation nonconsensual sexual advances, nonconsensual physical sexual contact, and rape by an acquaintance. The course material and instruction shall contain methods of preventing sexual assault by an acquaintance, including exercising good judgment and avoiding behavior that impairs one's judgment. The course material and instruction shall emphasize personal accountability and respect for others and shall also encourage youth to resist negative peer pressure. The course material and instruction shall inform pupils of the potential legal consequences of sexual assault by an acquaintance. Specifically, pupils shall be advised that it is unlawful to touch an intimate part of another person as specified in the Criminal Code of 1961.The wording of that provision suggests lawmakers were at least as concerned with protecting children from each other as from adults, and it doesn't seem directed toward the youngest children, as Obama maintained. But there is no doubt that the bill did address the question of inappropriate touching. On the other hand, there is also no doubt that, looking at the overall bill, the "touching" provision did not have the prominence that Team Obama has suggested it had, and it certainly wasn't the bill's main purpose.
After the ad controversy erupted, I asked the Obama campaign to suggest who I might interview for more information. I particularly wanted some sort of contemporaneous account showing that Obama voted for the bill because of its inappropriate-touching provision. The campaign suggested I call Ken Swanson, who is head of the Illinois Education Association and a 20-year veteran of teaching sixth-graders.
"The intent of the language and inclusion of kindergarten was simply to make it possible to offer age-appropriate, not comprehensive, information for kindergartners so that those young children could be given basic information so that they would be aware of inappropriate behavior by adults," Swanson told me. "Certainly, it was never intended to be some sort of inappropriate information that might be appropriate for junior high or high school students." McCain's accusation, Swanson told me, was "bogus."
I suggested to Swanson that the bill seemed to provide for HIV education for youngsters before the sixth grade, and perhaps as early as kindergarten. "As I recall the discussion, there was a conversation where in different places in the state - that was something that should be left to local circumstances," Swanson told me. "What might be appropriate in an urban inner city might not be appropriate in a rural community. I don't recall anybody, from our perspective, having a one-rule-fits-all vision."
Swanson suggested that if I wanted to know more I should get in touch with the bill's sponsors. There were five - State Senator Ronen, as well as Sens. M. Maggie Crotty, Susan Garrett, Iris Martinez, and Jeffrey Schoenberg. All were from the greater Chicago area. But getting in touch with them was easier said than done.
Ronen has left the Illinois state senate. When I called her home, I reached a woman who did not give me her name but told me she knew how to reach Ronen. I gave her my information, but there has been no call back, nor has Ronen answered a number of follow-up calls.
An assistant in Garrett's office helpfully gave me the senator's cell-phone number, so I was able to have a few brief conversations with her. In one, she said she couldn't talk and asked me to call back in a few minutes. I did, and then did again, and ended up doing so several times over an extended period, all without an answer. The next day, I reached Garrett again, who told me that since the debate took place five years ago, she couldn't speak about it "unless I have the bill in front of me . . . I'd be happy to do that if I could just print out the bill . . . I just want to be sure I get it right." We agreed that I would email her the bill, but after I did, she didn't answer the phone. She still hasn't.
I've gotten no response from Crotty or Schoenberg.
That leaves Sen. Martinez, who was kind enough to speak to me by phone Monday afternoon. Martinez began by saying that the bill was indeed about inappropriate touching. "We know that young children, very, very young, have things happen to them that they don't speak about," Martinez told me. "It's important that we teach our young kids very, very young to speak up."
When I asked Martinez the rationale for changing grade six to kindergarten, she said that groups like Planned Parenthood and the Cook County Department of Health - both major contributors to the bill - "were finding that there were children younger than the sixth grade that were being inappropriately touched or molested." When I asked about the elimination of references to marriage and the contraception passages, Martinez said that the changes were "based on some of the information we got from Planned Parenthood."
After we discussed other aspects of the bill, I told Martinez that reading the bill, I just didn't see it as being exclusively, or even mostly, about inappropriate touching. "I didn't see it that way, either," Martinez said. "It's just more information about a whole variety of things that have to go into a sex education class, the things that are outdated that you want to amend with things that are much more current."
So, I asked, you didn't see it specifically as being about inappropriate touching?
"THAT WASN'T WHAT I HAD IN MIND"
The controversy over the McCain sex-ed ad is a rerun of a similar controversy that erupted in the 2004 Illinois Senate race, when Obama's opponent, the Republican transplant Alan Keyes, brought up the same issue. In a debate that year, when Keyes accused Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners, Obama answered, "Actually, that wasn't what I had in mind. We have a existing law that mandates sex education in the schools. We want to make sure that it's medically accurate and age-appropriate. Now, I'll give you an example, because I have a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old daughter, and one of the things my wife and I talked to our daughter about is the possibility of somebody touching them inappropriately, and what that might mean. And that was included specifically in the law, so that kindergarteners are able to exercise some possible protection against abuse, because I have family members as well as friends who suffered abuse at that age. So, that's the kind of stuff that I was talking about in that piece of legislation."
Obama's explanation for his vote has been accepted by nearly all commentators. And perhaps that is indeed why he voted for Senate Bill 99, although we don't know for sure. But we do know that the bill itself was much more than that. The fact is, the bill's intention was to mandate that issues like contraception and the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases be included in sex-education classes for children before the sixth grade, and as early as kindergarten. Obama's defenders may howl, but the bill is what it is.
By Byron York
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online