JACKSON, Mississippi A new law in Mississippi requires medical professionals to collect cord blood from young mothers who give birth and won't name the father.
The law, which is likely the first of its kind in the country, will apply to girls who give birth before they are 16. Legislators hope that the umbilical cord blood can be used to run DNA tests to prove paternity as a step toward prosecuting statutory rape cases.
Supporters say the law is intended to chip away at Mississippi's teen pregnancy rate, which has long been one of the highest in the U.S. But critics say that though the procedure is painless, it invades the medical privacy of the mother, father and baby. And questions abound: At roughly $1,000 a pop, who will pay for the DNA tests in the country's poorest state? Even after test results arrive, can prosecutors compel a potential father to submit his own DNA and possibly implicate himself in a crime? How long will the state keep the DNA on file?
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant says the DNA tests could lead to prosecution of grown men who have sex with underage girls.
"It is to stop children from being raped," said Bryant, who started his career as a deputy sheriff in the 1970s. "One of the things that go on in this state that's always haunted me when I was a law-enforcement officer is seeing the 14- and 15-year-old girl that is raped by the neighbor next door and down the street."
The umbilical cord connects the fetus to the mother and helps provide nutrients, necessary gasses and allows the fetus to eliminate waste. The blood inside,, contains red and white blood cells, platelets, plasma and blood-forming hematopoietic stem cells. These stem cells are close to what is found in bone marrow, and can be used for transplants. The specimen can be stored in chord blood banks and used if the patient needs it.
But Bear Atwood, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said it's an invasion of privacy to collect cord blood without consent of the mother, father and baby. She also said that an underage girl who doesn't want to reveal the identity of her baby's father might skip prenatal care: "Will she decide not to have the baby in a hospital where she can have a safe, happy, healthy delivery?"
The law took effect July 1 but hasn't been used yet. Cord blood samples would have to be taken immediately after birth, and the state medical examiner is setting administrative rules for how the blood will be collected and stored. Megan Comlossy, health policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said she thinks Mississippi is the first state to enact a law authorizing the collection of blood from the umbilical cord - a painless procedure - to determine paternity.
Bryant's staff says the idea for the law came from public meetings conducted by the governor's teen pregnancy prevention task force - a group that focuses mostly on promoting abstinence.
Statistics put the state's teen pregnancy rate among the highest in the country. In 2011 - the most recent year for which statistics are available - there were 50.2 live births in Mississippi per 1,000 females ages 15-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nationwide rate was 31.3.
Democratic state Rep. Adrienne Wooten voted against the bill, saying it will mostly hurt poor women and could lead a prosecution "fishing expedition to find out who the father is."
"I think that that is totally outside the boundaries of what we as a Legislature should be doing," said Wooten, who, like Gipson, is an attorney. "We already have laws that deal with statutory rape."