An overwhelming majority of Americans tell pollsters that they favor sex education in the public schools. But carrying out such teaching is another matter entirely.
Opinions differ sharply on what should be taught and when and by whom. As a result, sex education remains one of the most intense and emotional battlefields of public education in the United States.
In an attempt to bring some cohesion to the teaching of human sexuality, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit organization that promotes sex education, has created detailed guidelines to be distributed immediately to school systems throughout the country.
The guidelines, announced yesterday in Washington, amount to a far-reaching sex education program for schoolchildren of all ages, from kindergarten through high school.
Calling the guidelines "a landmark," Dr. M. Roy Schwarz, senior vice president for medical education and science at the American Medical Association, said, "We needed a report like this."
He added that the plan would cause controversy because of its treatment of abortion and homosexuality.
For example, the guidelines state: "Women have the legal right to make the final decision about whether or not to have an abortion," and "Homosexual love relationships can be as fulfilling as heterosexual relationships."
Schwarz cautioned: "Some communities might dismiss the good things in the report because it calls for acceptance of diverse life styles and leans toward being pro-choice on abortion. . . ."
Dr. William L. Yarber, chairman of the panel of 20 educators and health-care experts who drew up the guidelines, called them the "most comprehensive" plan ever formulated for the teaching of sex education.
He and others on the panel said guidelines were needed because the content and quality of sex education varied so widely from one community to another.
Twenty-two states now require sex education, and 24 others officially encourage it. But in the absence of a consensus for goals and curriculum, sex education is taught in a patchwork of programs, many of them so brief and superficial that students do not hear anything they do not already know.
The council said fewer than 10 percent of children receive comprehensive sex education in school.
"Schools need models to help them develop programs," said Yarber, a professor of health education at Indiana University in Bloomington. "These guidelines represent an ideal model."