Mississippi lawmakers have made another controversial attempt to curb teen pregnancy. Under Bill 151, which is the first of its kind in the country, doctors and midwives in the state will be required to collect umbilical cord blood in certain cases, classified as “potential sex crimes”, where the mother was 16 or younger at the time of conception and one of the following is also true: the father was 21 years or older, reported as unknown or deceased, disputes paternity, or the mother will not identify the father. The new law aims to significantly reduce the state’s teenage pregnancy rate by identifying statutory rapists. In a Reuters report, Phil Bryant explained that, “As governor, [he is] serious about confronting and reducing teen pregnancy in Mississippi. Unfortunately, part of this epidemic is driven by sexual offenders who prey on young girls.”
Mississippi is notorious for its high teen live-birth rates, with 55 out of 1,000 babies born to young mothers between ages 15 and 19, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Not only is this rate 60% higher than the national average, it is also accompanied by higher incidences of low birth weight, only one among many complications that young mothers are more inclined to face. Mississippi’s high rates are indubitably an ongoing public health problem, though the new measure passed by lawmakers deserves ethical consideration.
A basic tenet of public health ethics principles is the requirement to show that there are no less invasive alternative prevention strategies available before employing more invasive strategies. Comprehensive sex education in schools is far less invasive than cord blood collection, which contains sensitive genetic information and stem cells. Studies have shown that comprehensive sex education, which Mississippi did not allow in schools until last year does help reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy. Mississippi still primarily utilizes abstinence-only sex education, even though comprehensive abstinence-plus sex education shows promising results. According to the Guttmacher Institute, teens who received comprehensive sex education that included instruction on birth control not only waited longer to have sex, but also had lower rates of pregnancy.
In addition, sex education avoids the privacy issues that accompany cord blood collection. Not only does cord blood contain genetic information about the person it belongs to, it also reveals information about their blood relatives. The cord blood collected under Bill 151 will be stored indefinitely at the medical examiner’s office. This leaves in question who would have access to the samples, both now and in the future, and how misuse of stored genetic information would be prevented. These issues, just to name a few, are even more troubling when one considers the genetic information was not willingly surrendered.
It is important to note that there are risks of having such laws that apply to both the mother and the unborn child. Such a law could prompt teen mothers to avoid seeking proper prenatal care for fear that the fathers of their children may be prosecuted. Worse yet, abusive fathers may threaten to harm pregnant teens who seek such care. Teens may even avoid giving birth in a formal health care setting, where they, along with their baby, can receive monitoring and safe, appropriate health care interventions.
Furthermore, it creates a strange position for doctors; they could be penalized if they do not perform what has been mandated by Bill 151. Not even a teen’s parent or legal guardian can stop the cord blood collection from taking place. A doctor’s primary concern is the health of the patient, and the child, and they have been specifically trained to spot cases of abuse long before Bill 151 was even pondered. If one purpose of Bill 151 is to identify victims of sexual abuse, one could argue that doctors already have the skills necessary in identifying abuse, which they have been using for years.
Furthermore, does this invasive measure truly address the issue at hand: teen pregnancy? Unlike Governor Phil Bryant’s comment suggests, there is no plausible evidence that Mississippi’s teen pregnancy issue is a result of “older men preying on young girls.” Even if this were true, what would the collection of cord blood accomplish for prevention months after the victim of statutory rape has become pregnant? It may provide evidence for prosecution, but it does not seem to be a reasonable pregnancy prevention measure. In fact, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and data from the CDC shows that the rate of teen pregnancy in Mississipi is highest for those aged 18 to 19 years old. There is actually evidence to support that most of the teens over 14 that are engaging in risky sexual behavior have partners that are relatively close in age.
Fundamentally, Bill 151 does not address the true cause or nature of Mississippi’s troubling teen pregnancy issue. The law is presented as a measure for preventing teen pregnancy and protecting young women from statutory rapists, but does neither. If Mississippi lawmakers really want to tackle the issue of teen pregnancy, they are better off starting with the widespread adoption of the tried-and-true prevention methods that have resulted in improvement nationwide.
Amaya George is a summer intern at the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics. She is a rising junior and pre-med student at Cornell University with a declared major of Biology and Society and minor of Inequality Studies.