Last November, I watched and listened from a corner of a room at the Jackson Convention Center as Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant recited lines from The Lord's Prayer to a crowd of teenagers: Our Father who art in heaven. A local chaplain from the Salvation Army led the invocation; a ballet troupe outfitted in floor-length gowns danced to a religious ballad.
Moments before the event began, there was hip hop music playing so loudly I heard it as I approached the hall from the upper level of the building and could feel it through my feet on the floor. I followed the stream of kids filing out of buses and into the convention center.Then I smelled the popcorn pouring out of the machine right next to the DJ's table along the far wall.
The atmosphere was that of a carnival or a church fundraiser. But it was the governor's "First Annual Teen Pregnancy Prevention Summit," advertised at the entryway by a full-color image of a stretch-mark-covered belly.
During a break in the proceedings, I milled around a line-up of literature tables at the back of the room. There were about 10 tables set up with red runners and chairs. Two of them held pamphlets from the state about teen pregnancy and government resources; another was sponsored by a state "family" organization. There, I found a pamphlet titled "Contraception: The Fine Print, Respect Life" by Susan E. Wills, Esq, which included this passage:
The best way to protect children from the damages of contraception and pre-marital sexual activity is by having two parents that make their values and expectations clear and who participate as a family in religious and leisure time activities... Contraception risks [young girls'] physical emotional and spiritual well being.... For their sakes reject the contraceptive based approach to reducing unintended pregnancies
This event was funded in part by taxpayer dollars. A representative of the Mississippi Department of Health told me his agency paid $1,500 for the space in response to a personal request from the governor.
"I didn't even know I had three holes!"A white woman in her mid-20s told me this last fall as we chatted over hors d'oeuvres and drinks one floor above the John Grisham Law Library at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Along with about 30 others, we had just attended a symposium on reproductive health as social justice presented by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). CRR had come to Oxford at the invitation of the first-ever chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice in a Mississippi college.
Scores of other women told me similar anecdotes about their sexual miseducation: I learned everything from my sorority sisters, I thought tampons were selectively absorbent, letting urine pass while holding on to my period blood, I thought if I had sex in a hot tub I couldn't get pregnant.
This anecdotal evidence alone would suggest that Mississippi kids need proper sex education, but the actual data bears this out. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the 2011 Mississippi Youth Risk Behavior Survey in last June. The report revealed what Mississippians already know -- teens are having sex. 58% of high school aged students have had intercourse (and 75% of seniors) -- 12% before the age of 13 -- and 35% of highschoolers used no protection.
Despite the CDC's 2011 findings, Mississippi allocated more money to abstinence-only programs than to abstinence-plus. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services' federal grant-tracking search engine (TAGGS), Mississippi received $739,000 through the Affordable Care Act ACA to implement abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in public schools. The grant guidelines stipulate Mississippi must match the federal funds with state funds at a rate of $3 state dollars to every federal $1. This translates into Mississippians spending around $554,000 in 2012 to teach abstinence-only programs that have not been proven effective. And with the addition of the matching funds, abstinence-only in Mississippi stands to gain over $1.2 million in public support.
By comparison, Mississippi only received around $520,000 PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program) funds to implement comprehensive sex-ed. And unlike Title V ab-only grants, the PREP guidelines do not require any state matching funds.
It will be some time before Mississippi is able to gather data from this first year of HB 999 implementation. However, existing studies on sexual education suggest that abstinence-plus, even with its diminished capacity, will ultimately prove more effective in reducing teen pregnancy and disease transmission than abstinence-only. (Tellingly, the state Board of Education chose to implement abstinence-plus programs in its four specialized state-run schools -- including The School for the Blind, The School for the Deaf, The School of Math and Sciences andThe School of the Arts.).
But under HB 999, could the possible good done by abstinence-plus programs be cancelled out by the possible damage done by the abstinence-only programs? According to the 2011 report from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, "A nine-year, $8-million evaluation of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs found that these programs have no beneficial impact on young people's sexual behavior."
The only way to address Mississippi's teen birth crisis will be a complete overhaul of HB 999. And that will only happen if the Mississippi electorate votes in legislators who are committed to ending the spread of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease -- and place data, statistics and facts above their personal religious beliefs.
This report was supported in part by a 2012 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Religion and Media.