Commentary Sexual Health

Can Mississippi Curb Teen Pregnancy and Statutory Rape by Collecting Cord Blood?

Martha Kempner

Mississippi has the highest rate of teen birth in the country, but instead of implementing proven prevention strategies—like good sex education and access to contraception—the governor has decided he will curb this epidemic by collecting umbilical cord blood and using the DNA as evidence of statutory rape.

A new law set to go into effect July 1 in Mississippi will require doctors and midwives to collect the umbilical cord blood of babies whose mothers are 16 or younger and whose fathers are either over 21 or unknown. The blood will then go into storage in case it is ever needed for a statutory rape case. The purported goal of the law is to prevent teen pregnancies by reducing those caused by older men raping younger girls. The logic of it, however—that cord blood can act as both evidence and a deterrent—seems sketchy at best, and many experts in the state think it has a good chance of backfiring.

In signing the law, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said, “As governor, I am serious about confronting and reducing teen pregnancy in Mississippi. Unfortunately, part of this epidemic is driven by sexual offenders who prey on young girls. This measure provides law enforcement with another tool to help identify these men and bring them to justice.”

Mississippi certainly has a teen pregnancy problem. In fact, it ranks sixth out of all states and the District of Columbia for teen pregnancy rates and has the highest teen birth rate in the country. In 2010, the teen birth rate in Mississippi was 55 per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19, compared to 34.2 per 1,000 young women nationally. The birth rate in Mississippi dropped 36 percent between its high in 1991 and 2010, but it still lags behind the national  45 percent drop in teen births during the same ten-year period.

It is not clear, however, that older men preying on girls 16 and younger make up a significant part of this epidemic, as the governor contends. In 2010, there were 6,188 births to women under 20 in Mississippi. Of those, just 111 were to girls under 15. Another 1,959 were to girls age 15, 16, and 17. Given that the 17-years-olds would be excluded from this law, we are likely talking about less than 1,000 births to young women under 16 in the state. Of course, we have no way of knowing what proportion of these involved men over 21, but the likelihood is that most of the fathers are also teenagers. Research has shown, for example, that the majority of girls (65 percent) have a first male partner who is within one or two years of her own age. So at most this law addresses a fraction of the cases of teen births in Mississippi each year.

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Moreover, in order to work as a deterrent in these cases, the law assumes that a 21-year-old man who is having sex with a young teenage girl (despite the fact that it is illegal) and not using contraception (despite the fact that she might get pregnant) will change his behavior based on what might happen to him ten months down the line when she gives birth to his child and his DNA is collected. A bit of a stretch, no?

Many advocates in the state worry that the law might instead act as a deterrent in other, more troublesome ways. For instance, it may prevent pregnant young women from seeking prenatal care and even from delivering in a hospital setting in order to protect the father of her child. One person I talked to noted that abortion opponents in the state have also started to worry about the law, wondering if young women will be more likely to terminate pregnancies rather than give birth again in an effort to save their boyfriends from prosecution. (One reason that Mississippi has such a high teen birth rate is that very few girls who become pregnant choose abortion. The teen abortion rate in the state is 11 per 1,000 pregnancies to girls 15 to 19, compared with 19 nationwide.)

Even if none of these things come to pass, the real tragedy of this law is that the governor has made it his top teen pregnancy prevention priority, when there are so many other things that could be done in his state that would have a real chance of helping curb the epidemic. As Jamie Holcomb Bardwell, director of programs at the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, which opposes this law, told Rewire, “Why don’t we invest in good evidence-based comprehensive sex education, access to good preventive health care, and contraception, and why don’t we help parents have conversations with their kids about pregnancy and older partners?”

All good ideas, but they do not seem to interest the governor, a former sheriff’s deputy and the one-time co-chairman of the state’s “personhood” effort. Though Mississippi law now allows school systems to provide abstinence-plus education, Bryant has gone on record supporting a stricter abstinence-only approach. He is also the man who once famously said, “The problem is teenagers do not care enough about using [contraception]”—which suggests he is unlikely to support efforts to make birth control more available to teens. Programs to support teen parents are also improbable given what he said to a roomful of teens in December: “If you want to fail in life, if you want to end up being on Medicaid—[Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)] and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of your life—if you never want to have a career, then all you’ve got to do is drop high school and have a baby. And I can almost assure you that’s what’s going to happen to you.”

So we are left with this law, which will do nothing to prevent teen pregnancy and raises numerous ethical, legal, and financial issues. Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told the Daily Beast, “If they’re collecting cord blood, it could be used just as easily against pregnant women. She’s at much at risk of prosecution as the person who impregnated her.” She explained that two women in Mississippi are being prosecuted for murder because their babies were stillborn and drugs were found in their systems at the time. Paltrow worries that the cord blood could be used against mothers if their babies suffer medical problems after birth.

Rewire Senior Legal Analyst Jessica Mason Pieklo said she questions the constitutionality of the law. “The law compels young mothers to give up their privacy rights upon giving birth unless she identifies paternity to the state’s satisfaction. It also totally disregards the fact that the search involves the genetic material of the child as well,” she said. “That child is not a crime victim but cannot opt-out in any effective fashion from the search. That means children of young mothers in Mississippi can never opt out of state-mandated DNA collection.”

Others are concerned that the state is more interested in scouting for possible cases of statutory rape than prosecuting the cases of rape that have actually been reported. Bardwell questioned whether rape kits were currently being processed in a timely manner and whether the new law will just add to an already overburdened crime lab.

There are also other practical issues to be considered. The law does not make it clear who is paying for the collection and storage, and who would be responsible for prosecuting fathers. NPR reported that prosecutors would first have to determine which county conception took place in before they could file any charges.

This law was sold as a way to protect vulnerable women from predators and to prevent teen pregnancy and birth, yet it does neither. Bardwell points out that if the state really wants to protect women it could strengthen its domestic violence laws, make health care more available, and prosecute existing rape cases. I would add that if the state really wants to prevent teen pregnancy it could provide real sex education, make contraception accessible to teens, and address the issues of poverty and hopelessness among teens who are really at the core of this epidemic.

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