By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The economic, moral and social impacts of teen pregnancy were discussed Friday at a town hall meeting hosted by Gov. Phil Bryant’s Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi task force.
“This is not a disease,” said Bryant speaking to about 200 at Galloway United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson. “This is something that can be prevented.”
“It won’t happen overnight,” he added. “It will take us decades.”
Bryant has made addressing the issue a goal of his administration. He said he especially wants to focus on adult males who father children with underage girls. He said he has spoken to prosecutors across the state about the need to criminally pursue adult males who have sexual relations with underage girls.
According to statistics provided at the meeting, the father is listed as unknown in more than 70 percent of the births in the state to mothers between the ages of 12 and 16 years old.
At Friday’s town hall meeting, two Neshoba County high school students who are part of Bryant’s task force told their individual stories. In emotional testimony, one girl told how her mother was an unwed teen mother and the impact it had on her and her mother. Another girl – an unwed mother – told of the challenges she faces as she attempts to finish her education.
Anthony Edwards, who runs a nonprofit in Jefferson County in southwest Mississippi, said at the meeting it was a mistake to try to find a uniform method of addressing the Mississippi teen pregnancy rate, which is the highest in the nation.
“We have to look at each individual community and finds out what works there,” he told the attendees.
Many at the event wanted to focus on what was described as a “Biblical” approach of abstinence only. Others said that teens also need to be educated about birth control.
Based on 2008 statistics, 66 of every 1,000 births in Mississippi were to teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19. This compares to the national average of 41 of every 1,000 births being to teenage mothers. Mississippi also has the highest rate of births to unwed mothers at 55 percent.
There were more than 146,300 births to teenage mothers between 1991-2008, costing taxpayers $3.7 billion. Statistically, children born to teenage mothers are more likely to encounter legal problems and to need additional health care, which often is provided through government programs like Medicaid.
Bryant said the goal is to reduce the number of births by teen mothers 15 percent by 2017.
He has asked the departments of Human Services and Health to develop plans to deal with the issue.