By Emily Le Coz
Mississippi will require doctors to collect umbilical cord blood from babies born to some young mothers, under a new law intended to identify statutory rapists and reduce the state's rate of teenage pregnancy, the highest in the country.
The measure, which takes effect on July 1 and is the first of its kind in the country, targets certain mothers who were 16 or younger at the time of conception. Under the law, doctors and midwives will be expected to retrieve umbilical cord blood in cases where the father is 21 or older or when the baby's paternity is in question.
Samples will be stored at the state medical examiner's office for testing in the event that police believe the girl was the victim of statutory rape. But they will not automatically be entered into the state's criminal DNA database.
Supporters of the law say it offers an important new tool to prevent older men from having sex with younger girls. Critics argue, however, that it violates privacy and will do little to deter teen pregnancy.
"We think it's a very invasive law to a woman who is already in a vulnerable situation," said Carol Penick, executive director of the Women's Fund of Mississippi, a nonprofit organization dedicated to women's rights.
Mississippi leads the nation in teen live-birth rates with 55 out of 1,000 babies born to young women between the ages of 15 and 19, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national average was 34.2 live births per 1,000 population and the lowest was 15.7, in New Hampshire, the CDC reported.
Governor 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 is the first state to pass such a law, said the bill's author, Republican state Representative Andy Gipson. The state will pay for the costs of the collection and testing of cord blood, Gipson said, adding that testing will be conducted as needed as part of criminal proceedings. An estimate of those costs was not yet available.
Bryant also championed a 2012 state law requiring doctors to preserve fetal tissue in abortions involving girls under 14 if they suspect the pregnancy resulted from a sex crime against a minor.
Uncharted legal territory
The latest measure puts Mississippi in uncharted territory and opens it to legal challenges, according to Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at Mississippi College School of Law.
"The argument is that the DNA is abandoned or about to be abandoned as medical waste, and a person doesn't have constitutional privacy over trash," he said. "But I think people are understandably nervous about the government collecting and permanently storing information from their DNA."
Steffey said the law puts doctors in the awkward position of acting as law enforcement officers. The state medical association successfully pushed for a penalty exemption for doctors who do not comply in good faith.
"Physicians would rather the Board of Medical Licensure supervise and regulate the practice of medicine instead of having government intrusion between doctors and patients," said Thomas E. Joiner, immediate past president of the Mississippi State Medical Association.
Penick said the state would be better off pursuing proven teen pregnancy prevention methods, such as comprehensive sex education and access to confidential health services.
Mississippi requires public schools to teach sex education, but the instruction is limited to either an abstinence-only or abstinence-plus curriculum, which critics say is not comprehensive enough.