Everyone seems to be an expert on how to reduce teenage pregnancies. Politicians are particularly eager to offer their new and innovative ideas. By now we’ve heard and seen it all.
First, it was just telling teens not to have sex until they are married. And then common sense and research demonstrated that doesn’t work. Then it was HB 151, the “cord blood law.” This law requires doctors to collect the umbilical cord blood from babies born to young women if the mother refuses to name the baby’s father or if the father is 21 or older. Next on the “big idea” list: billboards around Jackson that ask drivers, “It’s 4 pm. Do you know where your kids are?” According to this campaign most teen sex happens at 4 pm. And let’s don’t forget the numerous rallies featuring ministers and politicians as motivational speakers, urging teenagers not to have sex. Governor Bryant told a group of teenagers in 2012 at one of these rallies: “If you want to fail in life, if you want to end up being on Medicaid — CHIPS and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of your life — if you never want to have a career, then all you’ve got to do is drop out of high school and have a baby. And I can almost assure you that’s what’s going to happen to you.” Doesn’t Governor Bryant’s disapproval make you reconsider your actions? Are you depressed yet?
Despite these ill-conceived ideas, there is good news.
In 2014 the Mississippi Legislature passed SB 2563. This law requires all two- and four-year colleges and universities to develop a plan to address unplanned pregnancy on their campus. SB 2563 also requires colleges and universities to develop plans to “collaborate with community health centers and/or federally qualified health centers to promote access to care” and “identify child care, transportation, financial aid and other challenges specific to existing single parents.”
The Women’s Foundation was proud to partner with a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Senator Sally Doty, to advance SB 2563. This law is important because it addresses an important topic: unplanned pregnancy of adult women, not just teenagers. Most people imagine pregnant 15- and 16-year-olds when someone mentions teenage pregnancy but data describe a different picture: 70 percent of all teen births are actually to 18- and 19-year-olds. Often overlooked is the fact that more than half of all unplanned pregnancies in Mississippi occur to women in their twenties.
Access to preventive health care, particularly long-acting, reversible contraception, can dramatically decrease unplanned pregnancy and abortion rates. While contraception is still considered a controversial topic for high school sex education, it is less controversial when you’re talking about adults. Most four-year colleges and universities have on-campus health clinics but most community colleges do not. In some rural areas, the closest community health center or State Department of Health clinic is 45 minutes from the community college. Complicating factors even more is the fact that many students, especially community college students, lack health insurance.
Addressing unplanned pregnancies on college campuses is a public health issue and an economic development issue. According to a survey of community college students commissioned by the Women’s Foundation, 38 percent of women report dropping out because they became pregnant or had a baby. Dropping out of college without a degree increases the chances a woman and her children will live in poverty.
Mississippi has one of lowest college completion rates in the country — only 32 percent of Mississippi’s working-age adults hold a two- or four-year degree. States with an educated workforce attract employers that offer good jobs. Mississippi has an abundance of low-wage jobs because so few people have college degrees. Addressing unplanned pregnancies on college campuses is one important strategy to help increase the state’s college completion rate. Although the law does not require colleges to take any action, we are encouraged by the number of colleges actually implementing their plans. We are also hopeful that the 2015 Mississippi Legislature will include funding for this initiative.
SB 2563 is a start but it’s not enough. To truly reduce teen and unplanned pregnancy rates we need a better sex education law, increased access to health insurance and health care services, and less government intrusion into our most personal decisions.
The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi is the only grantmaking and advocacy organization in Mississippi entirely dedicated to funding programs that improve the lives of women and girls statewide. The mission of the Women’s Foundation is economic security for women. Find out more at www.womensfoundationms.org.
Front page image acquired through Creative Commons here.