February 3, 2023

A look at the topic of abortion in sex education in Kentucky

A look at the topic of abortion in sex education in Kentucky

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, the legality of abortion is left up to the states. In Kentucky, abortion is illegal except in cases deemed medically necessary to prevent the death of the mother or when medical treatment provided by a licensed physician results in an accidental or unintentional injury or termination.

In the wake of this legal change, Spectrum News 1 looked to see if there will be any changes to how sex education is taught in Kentucky regarding abortion. 

What You Need To Know

  • Spectrum News 1 looked at if there will be any change to how sex education is taught in Kentucky in regards to the topic of abortion
  • The Kentucky Academic Standards for Health Education outlines the minimum students in the Commonwealth should learn and practice surrounding the subject, which includes sex education
  • Currently, those standards, adopted in 2019, do not mention abortion
  • Every six years academic standards are reviewed and adopted, and Kentucky Academic Standards for Health Education are up for review in spring 2025

Currently, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) requires a half credit of health education as a minimum to graduate high school, which equates to a semester’s worth of instruction. Adopted in 2019, the Kentucky Academic Standards for Health Education outlines the minimum content standards students in the Commonwealth should learn and practice surrounding the subject. The health education standards cover an array of topics, including those that fall under the umbrella of sex education. 

On the school bus, in the locker room, in the hallways, on the internet and social media: ways Susan Kincaid says students can learn about sex. She prefers sex education to be taught in school.

“You know sex ed has always been a… you know people tiptoe around it. It’s one of those things. It’s needed, it is so needed in our schools,” Kincaid said.

Kincaid is the health education coordinator for Kentucky River District Health Department that serves seven counties in southeast Kentucky, which include Knott, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Owsley, Perry, and Wolfe. 

Susan Kincaid is the health education coordinator for Kentucky River District Health Department that serves seven counties in southeast Kentucky. (Spectrum News 1/Eileen Street)

“We do the best we can. I will say funding has decreased, and so I am the only health educator that does sex education, and, on top of that, I’m also the supervisor for health promotion and health education,” she explained.

“And you know the evidence-based curriculums and the education that these kids get through the health department is so needed, and so we thank the schools that allow us to come in because it just takes one person to complain about that class for it to be thrown out. So we do the best we can with those classes,” Kincaid said. 

Kincaid approached the Lee County School District’s Board of Education 15 years ago about sex education.

“Because Lee County had no sex education. They did not want it,” she said. “And I attended a Board of Education meeting and pretty much just laid it all out on the line for them… and I got it to pass through.”

There are two sex education curriculums taught. Kincaid said one is for seventh-graders, lasts five to eight days, and is abstinence-geared with little birth control education. The other is for ninth-graders and lasts about 15 days.

“We cover everything. We cover birth control. We cover sexually transmitted disease. It’s pretty much comprehensive,” Kincaid said. “It’s pretty fair game to talk about, you know, anything sex education related.”

Kincaid said the curriculum for ninth graders isn’t an abstinence-based curriculum, but it’s highlighted as a choice.

“Just because it’s not an abstinence-based curriculum, we do want to make sure that our students know that abstinence is a choice, and also if you have been sexually active in the past that abstinence is still a choice for you,” she said.

In 2020, Kentucky ranked 6th in the country for highest teen birth rates by state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For a comparison, the CDC ranked Mississippi first with 27.9 births per 1,000 females aged 15-to 19-years-old. In last place is Massachusetts with 6.1 teen birthrate. Kentucky’s birthrate rate is 23.8. 


Teen pregnancy rates among girls 15 to 19 years old, nationally have declined almost continuously for nearly 30 years, according to trends in teen pregnancy and childbearing data published by the Office of Population Affairs with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. They attribute a combination of delays in sexual intercourse and an increased use of effective contraceptives by adolescents to the decline. The trends also show abortion rates have declined. 

“Just right off the top of my head, I do know that in Lee County the teen pregnancy rate has declined 30% since before we started the sex education programs,” Kincaid told Spectrum News 1. “Now, I am not saying that was because of me or the curriculum, you know. I’m a firm believer and hormonal birth control. You know, if they are sexually active, hormonal birth control and condoms, they need to be using them,” Kincaid added.

With abortion, Kincaid said that topic is not part of the sex education curriculum she teaches.

“Through the Department of Public Health, where we get our funding, it’s just one of those things where we have been asked not to cover that, you know, we need to always just concentrate on abstinence being the number one, 100% way that you are not going to get pregnant, and then from there we can teach on birth control and contraception. Yea, but no, abortion is not on the table,” Kincaid explained. She told Spectrum News 1 that both curriculums taught are federally funded and funds are streamed through the Kentucky Department of Public Health. 

Even though abortion has not been part of the curriculum Kincaid teaches, she said she has an anonymous box for students to ask questions.

“I think that is the best thing in a curriculum for sex ed because these kids, you know, they can ask anything confidential,” she said.

In 21 years of doing this, I have only had one question about abortion, and it wasn’t from the question box. It was somebody that raised their hand and said, ‘Well, can’t you just get an abortion if you get pregnant?’ And I answered that as, ‘Whenever somebody becomes pregnant they have options,’ and then I just moved on. So I have not been trained on how to answer that question. So I felt like, you know, that was the best thing that I could come up with, and I feel like I answered that correctly because you do have options.,” Kincaid explained.

Every six years academic standards are reviewed and adopted for subjects taught in Kentucky schools. 

Micki Ray, chief academic officer in the Office of Teaching and Learning at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), said these academic standards serve as the minimum learning goals set for each grade level, but how that’s achieved is up to school districts. 

“So all of the lesson plans, and the unit design, and learning experiences that happen, all of that is determined at the local level but should be aligned to the grade level standards for students,” Ray explained.

By law in Kentucky, inclusion of abstinence education in any human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases curriculum is required, and instruction shall include but not be limited to the following content:

  1. Abstinence from sexual activity is the desirable goal for all school-age children;

  2. Abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems; and

  3. The best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems is to establish a permanent, mutually faithful monogamous relationship. 

Abortion isn’t mentioned in the Kentucky Academic Standards on Health Education, which were adopted in 2019. Ray said it’s up to schools to determine if that’s added to curriculum. 

“I’m sure that schools and districts will handle that differently, and I think that’s an item that when we bring the teacher writers back in, that is something they will have to consider, as well. What is the approach in terms of, if any? But, again, that would be a decision that would be made by the Advisory Panel and Review Committee for those standards documents,” Ray explained.

Since the Kentucky Academic Standards on Health Education were adopted in 2019, the tentative review date of health education standards and assessments will be in spring 2025

Family resource and youth service centers run by school districts provide services to kids and families meant to enhance a student’s ability to succeed in school. Even when abortion was legal in Kentucky, it was against the law for a school district to have such a center that provides abortion counseling or makes referrals to a health care facility to seek an abortion.

Janet Max is a certified health education specialist and president and chief executive officer of Healthy Teen Network (HTN), which is national membership organization for adolescent health professionals. Besides offering sex and health education training for teachers and facilitators, HTN also helps school districts select a curriculum that will meet what is allowed to be taught in their school district. (Max told Spectrum News 1 HTN has not worked with any Kentucky school districts on sex or health education.)

Max said it’s not as though the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is suddenly stifling a lot of conversation that was happening on abortion.

“Because I think a lot of conversation already wasn’t happening because it was being left up to the individual education agencies, and Kentucky is not known for progressive sex ed laws. So I think teachers were already, because there was nothing in place, already feeling nervous and unsure about what to say, and this is only coming down on it even more so,” Max said. 

While abortion is a small piece of what sex education covers, Max said, ideally, abortion is part of sex education.

It’s part of reproductive health. It is health care, and all the young people should know that it exists for them and how to access it, if that is what they desire. The reality is many school districts are unable to have that conversation with their young people, and so much of what we do is working with the school districts about what works within their community, what there is buy in for, and whether there is any particular policy or legislation,” she explained.

Max said HTN has not worked with any school districts, yet, on how to talk about abortion in sex education with Roe v. Wade overturned, but she said it’s something the organization is hoping to do over the coming months.

“We are also, I think, getting our heads around what this all means and how this is going to roll out,” Max said. 

As a national organization working across different states and communities, Max said HTN also has to work with people on what is workable regarding this topic because they know their communities best. 

“But I do think you are going to see some of this guidance coming out over the course of the next year, and some of these professional development resources coming out around ‘What do we do now? How do we talk about this? How do we still do well and do good on behalf of the young people we are working with at for,’” she said.

Future of Sex Education Initiative (FoSE), made up of the organizations Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, advocates to “create a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools.” In 2020, FoSE published its second edition of National Sex Education Standards, which provides guidance on minimum, core content and skills needed for sex education that is age appropriate for students in grades K–12 to be effective.

The standards state that by the end of 10th grade students should be able to, “Analyze state and federal laws and guidelines (e.g., CDC) that address sexual health care services for minors (e.g., contraception, emergency contraception, prenatal care, adoption, abortion, STD, including HIV, prevention, testing and treatment).”

Max said when teaching sex education, fit, and selection are important.

“Because you can choose a curriculum, that’s been evidence tested, it has all of these outcomes, but if it’s not the right fit and then the schools telling you, ‘Oh you can’t bring contraception in… and you are not allowed to do those activities,’ we don’t know that that intervention is going to work, and it will fall flat, which is why the fit of a program is so important,” Max explained.

Sex education can look different depending on what school district Kincaid is teaching the curriculum in. 

“In our other schools that we go into a lot of times we can pass birth control around. You know, just to let the ninth graders feel what a diaphragm feels like, feel what a lubricated condom looks like as opposed to a non-lubricated condom. At Lee County, I was asked that I’m allowed to do my presentation on birth control, but they did not want birth control being passed around, and so we respect that. Like I said earlier, we are going to do anything we can to stay in the schools,” Kincaid explained.

With abortion now illegal in Kentucky, Kincaid said sex education will be taught the same as before the decision.

“In our school system, like I said, we are going to do what’s asked of us, and we are not going to do what isn’t asked of us, and so it’s a privilege to be in the schools, and so we don’t want to do or say anything that could alter that. We will leave that conversation up to medical practitioners and providers.”