Mississippi lawmakers have embarked on a controversial campaign to discourage older men from having sex with teenagers.
Starting in July, doctors and midwives in the state will be required by law to collect samples of umbilical cord blood from babies born to some girls under the age of 16. Officials will analyze the samples and try to identify the fathers through matches in 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 try the approach.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, is also a supporter of the effort. Previously a deputy sheriff, Bryant said it's 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 applies if the two people are more than three years apart in age, until the girl is 16, the age of consent in Mississippi. For example, if the mother is 15 and the father is 19, even if sex is consensual, it's considered rape in the state.
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 isn't 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 than it is for them to talk about adequate sex education, access to contraception, looking at multigenerational 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.
The state medical association reluctantly accepted the law, but insisted that lawmakers remove a provision in the early version of the bill that levied penalties against doctors who don't comply.
But Matthew Steffey, a constitutional law professor at the Mississippi College law school 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 reporting partnership that includes Mississippi Public Broadcasting, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
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Beginning in July, when a baby is born to an underage mother in Mississippi, the state wants to know who the father is. Doctors and midwives will be required to take samples of umbilical cord blood. That evidence would aid the state in prosecuting cases of statutory rape.
But as Jeffrey Hess, with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, reports, enforcing the measure is going to be difficult.
JEFFREY HESS, BYLINE: Mississippi's Gov. Phil Bryant says the idea grew out of his time as a deputy sheriff, when he saw too many 13-, 14- and 15-year-old girls pregnant against their will.
GOV. PHIL BRYANT: So I applied that knowledge as a law-enforcement officer to these rape cases. And it is a tragedy that I think has been accepted over the years, where people simply say the young girl agreed to it, and so we can't do anything about it. And that's got to stop.
HESS: He thinks a way to stop those types of teen pregnancies is to require doctors and midwives to collect umbilical blood from babies whose mothers were less than 16 years old at the time of conception. Many doctors in the state already collect these samples but instead of it being used for medical purposes, it could now become criminal evidence. Bryant worked with Rep. Andy Gipson, the Republican who drafted the bill that passed earlier this year.
REP. ANDY GIPSON: Cord blood DNA that is already drawn will be processed through the state medical examiner's DNA database; for the purpose of seeing if we can find who harmed that child, and the father of that child if, for example, the mother won't list the name of the father. And this is, apparently, an epidemic in some parts of this state.
HESS: There are a number of other triggers, such as listing the father as unknown, claiming he's deceased; or if the father disputes his paternity. The state's Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, also helped draft the bill.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JIM HOOD: It's our hope that we can deter men over the age of 21 of having sex, particularly with young girls 16 years and under, if they know that we're going to pursue them.
HESS: The law is not entirely clear if it's limited to men 21 years and older. State statutory rape law kicks in if the two people are more than three years apart in age difference until the girl is 16, the age of consent in Mississippi. But the law is a solution looking for a problem, according to Jamie Holcomb-Bardwell, with the Women's Fund of Mississippi, because so few teen pregnancies involve very young girls and much older men.
JAMIE HOLCOMB-BARDWELL: It's a lot easier for politicians to talk about protecting young women than it is for them to actually talk about adequate sex education, access to contraception, looking at multigenerational poverty, making sure we have an adequately funded education systems. All of these things have been shown to reduce the teen pregnancy rate.
HESS: The state medical association is reluctantly on board with the law, as long as it doesn't criminalize medical activity. And the law could be a hornet's nest of legal problems, says Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor with the Mississippi College School of Law.
MATT STEFFEY: So in other words, most of the case - instances that trigger this law aren't criminal acts to begin with. Even when they are, it's not at all clear that the legislature can deputize health care workers to collect evidence without a warrant.
HESS: The law doesn't explain who would prosecute the men if they are located, and it's determined they broke the law, because prosecutors would have to determine in which county the sex that caused the conception occurred in order to file charges. The law also doesn't lay out who is going to pay for all the testing. The rules and regulations about implementation are still being drafted.
For NPR News, I'm Jeffrey Hess in Jackson, Miss.
SIEGEL: And that story came to us thanks to a collaboration of NPR, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News.
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