A World Apart

Mississippi's Governor Has Some Bad Ideas

Mississippi’s governor comes out with some bad ideas for women. Michelle Goldberg reports.

By several objective measures, Mississippi is one of our worst states. It has the nation’s highest poverty rate, its second-highest teen pregnancy rate, and its highest teen birth rate. An Education Week report ranks its schools 48 out of 50. Only Louisiana locks up a higher percentage of its people. Its infant mortality rate—9.67 deaths per 1,000 live births, the highest in the nation—is close to Botswana’s. Its life expectancy is the lowest in America and lower than those of Guatemala or Pakistan. Few states invest less in public education or public health. If it were an independent country, we’d consider it part of the Third World.

Not coincidentally, Mississippi is also one of our most conservative states, though in a recent Gallup poll, it slipped from first place to fourth. As iVillage reported last year in a piece on the country’s worst states for women—Mississippi came in first, or rather last—it’s one of only four states that has never sent a woman to Congress.

So we really shouldn’t be shocked that Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, thinks America’s educational woes can be laid at the feet of working mothers. Speaking on a panel this week about how the country became so “mediocre” in education, he replied, “Both parents started working, and the mom is in the workplace.” His comments sparked national outrage and indignation, but they shouldn’t have surprised us. Of course arch-conservatives think social breakdown is caused by the abandonment of traditional gender roles. Of course they fail to recognize that excessive wingnuttery is decimating their societies. That’s why their answers to social breakdown are frequently so ridiculous.

Consider Mississippi’s brilliant new approach to fighting teen pregnancy. On Monday, NPR reported on a new Mississippi law mandating the collection of cord blood from babies born to girls under 16. The idea, apparently, is that DNA could identify fathers who have passed through the criminal justice system and who might be statutory rapists, hence discouraging older men from impregnating younger girls. “Too many of these young teens are becoming pregnant against their will,” Bryant said.

Given that Bryant was a co-chair of the failed campaign for a personhood law in Mississippi—which might have outlawed the birth control pill, the IUD, and the morning-after pill, as well as all abortion—it’s nice to know that he’s suddenly concerned about forced pregnancy. But this law, a gross invasion of girls’ privacy, will do nothing for the state’s teen pregnancy problem. For one thing, as NPR reports, “[r]oughly 65 percent of teenage pregnancies in the state occur between teens who are one or two years apart in age.” Besides, the law doesn’t lay out who will pay for all this DNA testing, or who will be in charge of prosecuting fathers if they find them. “[P]rosecutors would have to determine in which county conception had occurred before charges could be filed,” says NPR.

Then there’s the very real danger that this law will be used against the girls themselves. Right now, says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, two Mississippi women who have suffered stillbirths are being prosecuted under the state’s murder statutes because there were drugs in their systems when they lost their pregnancies. If every single teen mother has her cord blood on file, it would be easy for prosecutors to test it if their babies suffer expected medical problems. “If they’re collecting cord blood, it could be used just as easily against pregnant women,” says Paltrow. “She’s at much at risk of prosecution as the person who impregnated her.”

There are, of course, more sensible ways to address teen pregnancy, which has already fallen dramatically all over the country since the 1990s, even in Mississippi. Step one: increase access to birth control. “Recent research concluded that almost all of the decline in the pregnancy rate between 1995 and 2002 among 18–19-year-olds was attributable to increased contraceptive use,” a 2012 Guttmacher Institute report concluded. “Among women aged 15–17, about one-quarter of the decline during the same period was attributable to reduced sexual activity and three-quarters to increased contraceptive use.”

Naturally, Mississippi is doing nothing to promote increased contraceptive use. “When the governor of Mississippi is saying these teen births are a tragedy, he’s not doing anything to prevent the births,” says June Carbone, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota and co-author, with Naomi Cahn, of the forthcoming book Family Classes: What is Really Happening to the American Family. “He wants to punish the sex. That’s the whole campaign—no sex education, make abortion difficult, and say you have no business having sex.”

Not that more access to sex education and contraception would be enough to stem Mississippi’s dysfunction. “A promising future is the best contraceptive,” says Carbone. “If women see they have a promising future, they are less likely to get pregnant, less likely to have sex at 14 or 15.” That means investing in education overall, as well as in decent jobs that pay a living wage. You’re not going to see much of that with a governor like Phil Bryant, who will never grasp that more conservatism is the problem, not the solution.