What Is Mississippi's Strict New Teen-Pregnancy Bill Supposed to Accomplish?

I have seen the governor speak twice, both times chairing teen pregnancy prevention events in Jackson. On both occasions he opened his remarks with a prayer, talked about his personal pain over teen pregnancy, God's design for repopulating the earth, and the scourge of deadbeat "baby daddies" in his state. Most recently he made national news by lamenting women's entrance into the workforce as "the reason for American mediocrity." He has made eradicating abortion in Mississippi a personal crusade. But Bryant's push hit a snag in April after a court granted an injunction allowing the state's last abortion clinic to stay open, despite a law intended to shut it down.

But Mississippi officials don't have their story straight on what this bill sets out to do. Is it, as the Bryants claim, a weapon against sexual predators? Or as Gipson claimed in an interview, a tool to "deter teenage pregnancy by causing men who are engaging in this conduct to think twice before they get a young girl pregnant"?

Either way, it's not clear that HB 151 solves a problem that exists.

"Governor Bryant's insistence that old men preying on young women is the reason for Mississippi's high teen pregnancy rate is not supported by actual data," says Jamie Holcomb Bardwell of the Mississippi Women's Fund. Mississippi is number one in teen birth rates in the country and number two in rate of teen pregnancy. Nationally, 70 percent of sexually active teenage girls have sex for the first time with a partner her age or one to two years older, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy,

"The real problem [is] politicians like Governor Bryant who say they want to protect women but have little interest in implementing policies that do so," Bardwell says.

And finally, it's unclear how the bill's conditions would work in practice. It doesn't spell out how paternity will be determined once cord blood is seized. Unless the father has been convicted of a crime serious enough to require his DNA be stored in a database, establishing paternity will become a matter of criminal investigation. Mississippi could use the need to determine paternity in accordance with HB 151 as pretext for broadening scope of who gets swabbed to any man arrested for any crime, no matter how small. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Maryland v. King in early June that, like photographing or fingerprinting a suspect of a crime, a cheek swab is reasonable upon arrest.

What HB 151 illustrates is the growing currency of a narrative among anti-abortion advocates: that the teen-pregnancy crisis is caused by old men impregnating very young teens.

Dr. Freda Bush, an OB/GYN, staunch anti-abortion advocate, and personhood supporter told me that 10- to 14-year-olds who become pregnant are most often the victims of rape or incest, and said that age range is Mississippi's biggest teen-pregnancy problem. Bush is the medical advisory chair on Bryant's task force.

Dana Chisholm, head of Pro-Life Mississippi and frequent clinic protestor, told me something similar. She said she regularly sees young teen and pre-teen girls being forced into the abortion clinic in Jackson by men old enough to be their fathers.

In the last year, I have spent hours in and around the clinic, and I don't recall ever seeing this happen. That anecdotal evidence is reinforced by data. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy shows the rate of teen pregnancy highest among teens in Mississippi is highest for those aged 18 to 19. The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control finds something similar: The highest teen birth rate in Mississippi occurs between the ages of 18 to 19 years old, at a rate of 55.7 live births per 1,000 teens. The rate for girls aged 10 to 14 years is only 1.1 per 1,000.

Even more revealing is a recent set of statistics about the ages of young men who father these babies from the Mississippi Vital Records Office. In response to an open records request the most recent data was provided. In 2011 there were 834 live births among girls aged 10 to 16 years old. Only 34 of those live births occurred in the 10-to-13-year-old group. None list the age of the father, so the proof that older men are the cause of the teen pregnancy problem in Mississippi just doesn't exist.

We can certainly all agree no girl aged 10 to 16 years should be pregnant, and that teen pregnancy and teen parenting is not ideal. Of course society must be vigilant in protecting kids and teens from rape and sexual assault.

But HB 151 doesn't bolster the existing statute it amended. Laws governing mandatory reporting of sexual assault have existed to protect kids for decades in Mississippi. Instead, HB 151 opens a new avenue for anti-abortion activists to craft a new and incorrect narrative. The bill is a blow to women's bodily autonomy and basic right to privacy, and it undermines Fourth Amendment protections.

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Andy Kopsa is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms., Religion Dispatches, and In These Times, among other publications.

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