Mississippi Teen Pregnancy Laws and Sex Trafficking – Has Mississippi Gotten it Right?

First off, let me say that I’m from Arkansas. And just like Mississippians make the joke, “Thank goodness for Louisiana!,” Arkansans make the joke, “Thank goodness for Mississippi!”

That said, I’m wondering if maybe Mississippi is ahead of the game this time.

Mississippi’s teen birth rate, although declining, is still 60% higher than that of the rest of the nation. And approximately 111 of the 6,100 births to teenagers in Mississippi were to mothers under the age of 16.

Effective July 1, doctors and midwives in Mississippi will be required to take umbilical cord blood samples from babies born to some women under the age of 16. The new law is intended to discourage older men from having sex with teenagers and to track down statutory rapists.

Lawmakers responsible for drafting the bi-partisan legislation believe it will deter older men from having sex with younger women:

“It is our hope that we can deter men over the age of 21 from having sex … with girls 16 years and younger, particularly if they know we are going to pursue them,” Jim Hood, the state’s Democratic attorney general, said.

If a girl is impregnated by a male more than three years older than her, the state will prosecute the baby’s father. This law applies to girls under the age of 16, which is the age of consent in Mississippi. Although the legislation has no opposition, it is poorly crafted in that it is unclear who would prosecute the men if they are located, or how lawmakers would determine where the baby was conceived in order to file charges. It also does not state who will pay for the DNA testing.

The bill is getting some push back from the state medical association, which has asked lawmakers to remove a provision that includes penalties for doctors who might not abide by the law. It is also getting push back from advocates for women.

Jamie Holcomb-Bardwell, director of programs for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, believes the legislation’s focus is misdirected, saying that few teen pregnancies involve very young girls and much older men.

“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 multi-generational poverty, [and] making sure we have an adequately funded education system,” she said. “All of these things have been shown to decrease the teen pregnancy rate.”

What Holcomb-Bardwell’s statement does not address, however, is sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is on the rise in Mississippi. Girls are forced into sex trafficking in a variety of ways, and their pimps are the ones who gain monetarily. Despite the fact that these girls are victims, they can be and are criminally punished for their “participation” in prostitution. The absurdity of this, of course, is that these young girls cannot “consent” to participating in prostitution. Even if they say “yes,” when a 12-year-old has sex with a 30-year-old, that 12-year-old is not yet developed enough to give true consent. This is certainly true when that “yes” is born of fear, early grooming, or a desperate need for “love” otherwise not available.

Nonetheless, in cases of child prostitution, police often target the girls instead of the pimps, because the girls are easier to catch. That makes a certain sort of sense, assuming the girls divulge the name of their pimp and/or stay off the streets, but unfortunately it doesn’t tend to happen that way. And as one of the top anti-sex-trafficking advocates in the nation states,

“Every act of what’s called … ‘prostitution’ with these children is actually a form of child sexual abuse — and to take it further, child rape,” she says. “So I don’t think children who are raped should be criminalized, no I don’t.” (Nole Brantley)

So if the children shouldn’t be criminalized, and the pimps are too hard to catch, what are the options for our police officers and prosecutors? Local, state, and federal governments need to start thinking creatively on this. Is Mississippi’s law the way to go? Well, maybe. If even one child under 16 becomes pregnant and the umbilical cord DNA leads to someone involved in a child- sex ring, the results could be amazing and far-reaching.

But, let’s go back to Holcomb-Bardwell, especially her point regarding multi-generational poverty. According to Brantley, it is often children from impoverished families who end up involved in sex trafficking. The reasons for this are many, and Holcomb-Bardwell is right that legislative efforts must begin there. Assuming that Mississippi’s new law takes up much-needed funds that could otherwise be spent on poverty eradication and the other areas mentioned by Holcomb-Bardwell, I have to say I agree with her. In a perfect world where funding is unlimited; however, I say “why not?” Every little bit helps, and this law may be a creative way to address sex trafficking.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think Mississippi has it right? Or is the law a dead end? What are some creative options for our law enforcement and our legislators?