Thursday, April 08, 2010

DA threatens to arrest anyone who teaches teens how to use contraception.

Once politicians get hold of an issue they have a tendency to take it to its authoritarian conclusion. That is they always look for ways to impose their wills on others. Even when they wish to “help” someone it always comes at the price of the freedom of choice of the individual being helped. The incentives in politics are such that measures become more authoritarian as time goes by. Policies that appear justified in one area are quickly expanded and applied to very different areas where the connection is far more nebulous.

Consider the desire to protect “children” from sexual exploitation. There is no question that such a motive is a good one. It does not, however, follow that the policies meant to achieve this goal are themselves laudable or good. The expanded categories tended to take over and move into fields where state action is almost always destructive and harmful, especially to those they are claiming to “protect.”

One problem was that the politicians immediately expanded what the term “child” means and what the term “exploitation” means. Now a child is anyone under the age of 18, in many circumstances. And sexual exploitation means any consensual sexual activity between teens of same or similar ages.

This became clear when a Right-wing Christian, who unfortunately is the District Attorney for Juneau County, Wisconsin, warned teachers that they could be arrested for teaching students about how to use contraceptives in sex education courses. The DA, who has the annoying tendency of using all of his names, Scott Harold Southworth, is part of the so-called “Christian Life” movement, which believes that fetus has rights right up until the moment it is born—then rights are severely limited in the name of morality.

Southworth is upset because new legislation regulating sex ed courses in Wisconsin requires “schools to provide instruction on how to utilize contraception.” Telling teens how to use contraceptives, according to this conservative’s logic, “encourages our children to engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender.” Are you getting what he is saying? He doesn’t see any other options. Teens who have sex are either victims or offenders; no other possibilities seem to exist.

This is not trying to prevent teens from being exploited sexually. This is trying to prevent teens from being sexual—much the way praying can stop the tide from coming in. When we exposed how the state is locking up teens as “sex offenders” it got a lot of attention from people who seemed oblivious to the fact that this was happening. But it is happening precisely because of the sort of twisted logic of people like Southworth: for them any teen who has any sexual activity with another teen is some sort of criminal pervert. As much as this sounds anti-youth this attitude is more anti-sexual than anything else.

After Southworthy lays down his premise that all teen sex is a criminal violation he then goes after those nasty condoms. He says that giving teens information on how to use contraceptives encourages them to be either “victims” or “offenders.” He then warns: “Anyone who intentionally encourages or contributes to the delinquent (criminal) act of a child can be charged under this statue.” This means that anyone who tells a teen how to use a condom and knows or suspects the teen may be sexually active “can be charged under this statute.”

All this was in a letter he sent to local school districts warning them that sex education classes may result in him arresting the teachers. He warns that the “teacher need not be deliberately encourage [sic, his exact wording] the illegal behavior, he or she only need be aware that his or her instruction is ‘practically certain’ to cause the child to engage in the illegal act. Moreover, the teacher could be charged even if the child does not actually engage in the criminal behavior.

Got that? He is warning teachers that he may arrest them for telling teens about contraception even if the teens in questions are do “not actually engage in the criminal behavior (sex).”

Under the sex education regulations in Wisconsin teachers are supposed to tell students how to use contraceptives. But South worthy is saying that merely instructing teens on condom use is something he considers to be criminal and he may, as he see fits, arrest the teachers on “either misdemeanor or felony charges with maximum punishments ranging from 9 months of jail to up to six years in prison.”

This outrageous letter from Southworth has received a good deal of attention in some circles. But all the articles I’ve seen have missed something important. There is no exception for parents. According to Southworth, “anyone” who distributes this information “can be charged under this statute.” Southworth says all sexually active teens are either “victims” or “offenders” and instructing them on how to use contraception is encouraging them to be delinquents. It wouldn’t matter, under this interpretation, whether the adults doing the instruction are teachers or parents.

A careful reading of Southworth’s letter makes it clear that he would also have to conclude that parents can be arrested for telling their teens how to use contraceptives. Realistically, when the state takes charge of the lives of children, it must push parents out of the way. Every state intrusion into the lives of children is one that substitutes political control for parental control.

There are times when such intrusion may be necessary, such as when parents are abusing their own children, but this sort of intrusion is always dangerous and must be used sparingly and carefully. Moralistic campaigns tend to be quite the opposite: they are all encompassing and emotionally driven, not thoughtful. Those kinds of campaigns tend get out of control easily and do a great deal of damage.

I just have to wonder what the voters of Juneau County would think if they understood that all of Southworth’s logic applies to parents as well as to teachers. The idea that telling sexually active teens how to avoid pregnancy could be considered a crime is itself an indication of how unreasonable the Religious Right can be.

Labels: ,