Mississippi lawmakers have embarked on a novel campaign to discourage older men from having sex with teenagers: Starting July 1 doctors and midwives will be required to take umbilical cord blood samples from babies born to some women under the age of 16 so officials can try to identify the father through a match from the state’s DNA database.
“It is our hope that we can deter men over the age of 21 from having sex, particularly with girls 16 years and younger, particularly if they know we are going to pursue them,” said Jim Hood, the state’s Democratic attorney general who helped draft the bill.
Officials said Mississippi is the first state in the country to implement such a program.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, is also a supporter of the effort. Bryant, who was once a deputy sheriff, said it is necessary to protect young women who might be victimized by older men, even if the teenagers say they consented to having sex. Too many of these young teens are becoming pregnant against their will, he said.
“It is a tragedy that I think has been accepted over the years where people say the young girl agreed to it so we have to accept it. And that has got to stop,” he said.
State statutory rape law kicks in if the two people are more the three years in age difference, until the girl is 16, the age of consent in Mississippi.
The bill doesn’t explain who would prosecute the men if they are located and are believed to have broken the law, but prosecutors would have to determine in which county conception had occurred before charges could be filed. It also is not clear what age range prosecutors will target.
The law also doesn’t lay out who is going to pay for testing. Regulations about implementation are still being drafted.
Republican State Rep. Andy Gipson, who drafted the bill, said one of his motivations is to find “who harmed that child” because these new mothers often refuse to name the father of their child.
The bill is a solution looking for a problem, according to Jamie Holcomb-Bardwell, director of programs for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, an advocacy and funding group on women’s issues. Few teen pregnancies involve very young girls and much older men, she said.
“It is a lot easier for politicians to talk about protecting young women then it is for them to talk about adequate sex education, access to contraception, looking at multi-generational poverty, making sure we have an adequately funded education system,” she said. “All of these things have been shown to decrease the teen pregnancy rate.”
While Mississippi’s teen pregnancy rate is about 60 percent above the national average, it is near a 40 year low. Of the 6,100 births to teenagers in 2012, 111 were babies born to girls under the age of 15.
Roughly 65-percent of teenage pregnancies in the state occur between teens who are one or two years apart in age difference.
The state medical association reluctantly accepted the law but insisted that lawmakers strip out a provision in the early version of the bill that included penalties for doctors who did not comply.
Matthew Steffey, a constitutional law professor at the Mississippi College school of law in Jackson, said the measure could raise a “hornet’s nest” of legal problems. “It is not at all clear that the legislature can deputize health care workers to collect evidence without a warrant,” he said.
This story is part of a collaboration that includes Mississippi Public Broadcasting, NPR and Kaiser Health News.