Texas GOP platform calls for ban on teaching “sexual matters,” while requiring students to learn about “dignity of the preborn human”

The display at the Texas Alliance for Life booth illustrates the development of a fetus during the Republican Party of Texas 2022 convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Friday, June 17, 2022. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Republican Party on Saturday voted on two new party platform planks aimed at barring the teaching of sex and sexuality in schools while simultaneously calling on Texas schools to teach the “dignity of the preborn human” and that life begins at fertilization.

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One policy proposal called on state lawmakers to prohibit the “teaching, exposure, and/or discussion of sexual matters (mechanics, feelings, orientation or ‘gender identity’ issues),” as well as remove related books or materials from schools.

“The issue of gender has nothing to do with education,” said Cindi Castilla, president of the Texas Eagle Forum and who served on the party platform committee. “Education is about reading, writing, math, science, history and fine arts. Maybe some foreign language and PE. … Schools aren’t the social educators of our kids.”

Elsewhere, the GOP platform also added that Texas students should learn about the “dignity of the preborn human” and that life begins at fertilization.

“That goes back to biology, back into teaching sex as biology,” said Julie Pickren, who told The Texas Tribune that sex education has a place only if it follows state health education standards and is age appropriate. “If it has a heartbeat, it's a human, right?”

Pickren, a Republican, is running for the State Board of Education District that represents Southeast Texas. Incumbent Matt Robinson is not running for reelection.

The platform plank does not specify which grades should get these lessons, except to say that high school students should read the Woman’s Right to Know booklet. Critics say that booklet, written by the state, includes scientifically unsupported claims and shames women seeking abortion care.

The platform plank also states that students should witness a live ultrasound and watch a “Miracle of Life” type video.” The 1982 film documents the human reproductive process from conception to birth.

Kristen Ylana, executive director of The Texas Women’s Health Caucus, said the push to teach public school students that life begins at fertilization represents a broader push by the Texas Republican Party to broadly establish a legal foundation to claim a fetus is a person with constitutional rights.

“They want to get to the point where we can say, ‘Well, no, this is a person. So they require legal protections, criminal protection, constitutional protections. They have rights that are just as valid and equal. So therefore, you can’t do certain things,’” Ylana said.

During the last regular legislative session, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed a bill that defined personhood at fertilization and would provide due process to a fetus. The bill died in committee.

The State Board of Education recently wrapped up its review of health curriculum standards, which include requirements to teach about fertilization in fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

“My thought is to leave well enough alone. What we put in the standards is factual and balanced,” Patricia Hardy, a Republican board member from Fort Worth, told the Tribune Saturday after the platform vote.

Many delegates at the convention argued that young children don’t need to learn about issues of gender and sexuality, including conversations and lessons about people who are transgender. Those delegates said Saturday they prefer such conversations happen at home. Under Texas law, parents currently must provide written consent for their children to attend sex education classes, which are required to emphasize abstinence.

Some women’s health advocates and public education leaders criticized the policies as harmful and discriminatory and questioned the legality of barring the teaching of gender and sexuality in schools.

“The Texas GOP is out of step with the majority of Americans who believe in equality,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of American Federation of Teachers. Capo said the platform plank banning the teaching of “sexual matters” appears to violate Title IX, which protects against sex-based discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Parents may try to restrict what their own kids read or who they love, but they do not have the right to restrict others,” Capo said, “not in a truly free society.”

The newly approved Texas GOP party platform broadly places the culture wars at its core, as the party adopted a slew of new platforms that shift the party further to the right on Saturday.

Delegates Saturday voted on 275 platform planks, which will now need to be tallied and certified in Austin. It is rare for a plank to be rejected, Texas GOP party spokesperson James Wesolek said. In addition to the platform, the delegates voted to choose 8 among 15 legislative priorities to be shared with Republican lawmakers ahead of the legislative session that starts in January. Which 8 were selected will not be known for several days.

Party platforms are often more aspirational than practical and, in Texas, they have long reflected the opinions of the most activist wings of the parties. Elected officials are not bound to adhere to their parties’ platforms.

The additions to the state GOP platform related to teaching Texas students about sex and sexuality come months after Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children as child abuse. The state also has seen a push from far-right lawmakers and conservative parents to remove “obscene content” from school libraries and classrooms. The book bans often have targeted young adult literature with racial and LGBTQ+ themes.

The platform also calls for lawmakers to remove an exemption in the Texas Penal Code that “allows children access to harmful, explicit or pornographic materials under the guise of educational materials.”

Castilla said the exemption allows schools to use educational materials she considers to be “obscene pornography.”

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