JACKSON, Miss. — If a girl younger than 16 gives birth and won’t name the father, a new Mississippi law — probably the first of its kind in the nation — said authorities must collect umbilical cord blood and do DNA tests to prove paternity as a step toward prosecuting statutory rape cases.
Supporters contend the law will chip away at Mississippi’s teen pregnancy rate, which has long been one of the highest in the nation. But critics say that though the procedure is painless, it invades the medical privacy of the mother, father, and baby. And questions abound: At about $1,000 each, who will pay for the DNA tests in the nation’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 Governor Phil Bryant said DNA tests could lead to prosecution of adult 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.’’
But Bear Atwood, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said it is an invasion of privacy to collect cord blood without consent of the mother, father, and baby. She also said that an underage girl who does not 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 has not 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 said the idea for the law came from public meetings of the governor’s teen pregnancy prevention task force, which focuses primarily 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 were 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.
And more than half Mississippi’s 82 counties reported at least one pregnancy by a 10- to 14-year-old girl in 2011, according to an Associated Press analysis of state statistics.
The governor’s staff also said it heard disheartening information from Chancery Judge Janace Harvey Goree, whose district covers four counties in central Mississippi.
Democratic state Representative Adrienne Wooten voted against the bill, saying it will hurt poor women and could lead to a ‘‘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.