By Bill Crawford
Did you catch the subtle divergence between governors as they discussed the problems of teen pregnancy and illegitimate births in Mississippi?
In his first month, Gov. Phil Bryant said, “We can no longer pretend that teen pregnancy and illegitimacy are non-issues. We must boldly confront the facts and address them. We lead the nation in teen pregnancy and consequently, low birth weights and high infant mortality rates. We know a child born to a teen mother almost always has a difficult path to success.”
In his last month, Gov. Haley Barbour said, “Our state ranks near the worst for children born to teen-aged girls and the data is emphatically clear that children born out of wedlock, with no father at home helping raise them, suffer dramatically higher levels of poverty, drug addition, incarceration, premature death. They have lower birth weights, worse infant mortality rates and smaller chances of finishing high school.”
Bryant said, “We must begin the public discussion of how to reduce teen pregnancy in Mississippi,” adding, “I have asked the director of the Department of Human Services and the state health officer to provide me, within 30 days, an aggressive plan to address our teen pregnancy rate and suggestions on how to curb it.”
Barbour said, “Cutting our illegitimacy rate in half in five years should be at the top of the list,” adding, “Government has a key role to play but the answers, the plan and the programs need to be developed by churches and families.”
Bryant leaned more toward teen pregnancy and sees a clear role for government. Barbour leaned more toward illegitimate births and sees a lesser role for government.
For 2010, the Mississippi Department of Health reported 6,590 teen pregnancies resulting in 6,185 live births, 849 induced terminations (abortions), and 61 fetal deaths. Of these births, 90 percent were illegitimate.
Also for 2010, the department reported 21,874 illegitimate births to women of all ages. That was 55 percent of all births.
Just as the scale of the two overlapping issues differs, so, too, do their trends.
As births to teen-aged girls in Mississippi dropped 44 percent from 1980 to 2010, illegitimate births to women of all ages increased 63 percent.
Barbour saw the growing illegitimacy problem as exacerbating the overall breakdown in family values and adding to our persistent economic challenges of poverty, illegal drugs, and low educational achievement.
Bryant saw beyond the declining teen pregnancy problem to a more persistent moral challenge – pregnant teens account for a high percentage of abortions performed on Mississippi residents, both in and out of state. He knows fewer teen pregnancies mean fewer abortions.
Both governors have valid perspectives. The teen pregnancy and illegitimate birth problems, both, need attention. More about such attention next week.
Bill Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.