Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ramsdale: Sex education is overdue; just ask my med students


I teach at the USC School of Medicine and the Women’s and Gender Studies program, and I have been appalled by the lack of sex education even among students pursuing careers in the medical field. In my introductory level undergraduate course in women’s health, I often find myself teaching basic sex education because of all of the misinformation my students had before they reached my classroom.

Most of my students grew up in South Carolina, and it is concerning that so many of them are beginning college without being able to name parts of their own bodies or how they function. As health-care consumers, how can they possibly make good choices, either preventive or therapeutic, without a firm grasp on the fundamentals?

Just last semester, I taught introductory embryology to first-year medical students. These presumably are students who have had substantial biology courses in their backgrounds, yet only one out of my 100 students had ever been taught how a woman’s menstrual cycle works. Imagine having to teach medical students such basics about how the body works. And these students are on the path to careers in medicine.

How could students who are otherwise well-versed in biology and human anatomy be so woefully undereducated on the subject of reproductive health? A 2013 report by the New Morning Foundation, “A Sterling Opportunity: 25 Years After the Comprehensive Health Education Act,” suggested one reason: The majority of South Carolina’s school districts were not in compliance with the reproductive health education requirements of the 1988 Comprehensive Health Education Act.

Multiple studies suggest that a lack of appropriate sex education and constrained access to sexual health services are key contributing factors of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. In addition to South Carolina’s high rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, inadequate sex education also takes a hefty economic toll on all citizens. In 2010, births to teen mothers cost South Carolina taxpayers $166 million; public spending on all unplanned pregnancies totaled an estimated $411 million.

Tell Them, a nonpartisan advocacy network of more than 18,000 reproductive health advocates, is working to change this. Tell Them supports age-appropriate, medically accurate health education in our public schools and increased access to high-quality reproductive health counseling and services.

H.3447 would update South Carolina’s 27-year-old sex education law, requiring students to receive age-appropriate, medically accurate information about pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted disease protection.

Tell Them recently launched a campaign designed to urge lawmakers to consider the impact on real South Carolinians of extremist beliefs designed to limit women’s abilities to plan their families through in vitro fertilization and access to birth control, and to limit our students from receiving the education necessary to help them understand how their bodies work and to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.

I’ve seen the consequences of misinformation in my classroom, and I share Tell Them’s belief that medical fact, not politically minded rhetoric, should guide classroom discussion of reproductive health. That’s why I am a member of this organization. If you believe S.C. students deserve to know how their bodies work, please visit tellthemsc.org and join me in Tell Them’s movement to put people before politics. It’s high time our legislators come to understand the importance of responsible reproductive health policy for all.

Dr. Ramsdell is an associate professor in the USC School of Medicine and program in Women’s and Gender Studies; contact her at ann.ramsdell@uscmed.sc.edu.