All-male panel ruled on rape bill during Maryland's legislative session

As the 2017 legislative session wound down Monday evening, five men sat on couches in a lounge inside Maryland's State House. They would soon decide the fate of a bill that would allow a woman who is raped and conceives a child to terminate the parental rights of her assailant.

Maryland is one of 16 states that has not passed such a law. Women here still have to negotiate with an alleged rapist over custody or putting the child up for adoption.

It was the ninth time Del. Kathleen Dumais had tried to pass the law. It had progressed further in the state legislature than ever before by passing both houses. But there were substantial differences between the House and Senate versions, so a conference committee of three delegates and three senators was chosen to negotiate a single bill.

Neither Dumais nor any other woman was asked to be on the committee.

"Although I have great respect for my colleagues, not having women on the committee was tone-deaf," Sen. Cheryl Kagan said. The Montgomery County Democrat stood over the men at the conference with her arms crossed, overseeing the group with Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat.

"I wanted to watch as the conscience for women and rape survivors," Kagan explained.

Dumais wasn't a voting member on the committee, but she participated in the conference.

The committee members were chosen by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Robert Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Vallario said the all-male committee "was never intended that way." He said he didn't ask Dumais because he never appoints prime sponsors of a bill to a conference committee, to be "impartial."

Dumais, the vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said she has sat on conference committees for bills for which she's been primary sponsor. Vallario appointed himself to the committee but did not attend negotiations.

Zirkin said he thought it was "odd" that Dumais wasn't appointed by Vallario. He said he asked Dumais and Kelley to the meeting to discuss the bill. He said it was not a gender issue.

"It was very frustrating that it didn't pass," Zirkin said. If a special session is called, he said, he hopes to bring the bill back up.

Lisae C. Jordan, director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, lobbied for the bill.

"Chairman Zirkin knows how to pass a bill and how to kill one," she said. "If he wanted the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act to pass, it would have."

Sen. Michael J. Hough, a committee member said "this is not a man or woman issue."

Rather, he said the key sticking points were over issues.

Would it have been different with a woman in charge?

"I would have scheduled [the conference committee] earlier," Dumais said.

crentz@baltsun.com

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