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Effort to limit teen marriage in Maryland failed amid concerns from abortion rights, women's groups

Most state lawmakers agree 15-year-olds are too young to get married, but a proposal to raise Maryland’s legal marriage age failed this week in the General Assembly because of pressure from an unexpected group — women’s rights advocates.

Legislation to increase the age to 16 or 17 died in the final hours of the legislative session Monday night as the advocates predicted unintended consequences.

Raising the age to marry could open the door for proposals to limit access to abortions for teenagers, advocates argued. And if teens can consent to sex at 16 in Maryland, they should not be forbidden to wed at the same age, they said.

In addition, said Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, if lawmakers were concerned about teens being coerced into early marriages, there are better ways to help them.

“We want them to have as many options as possible,” Siri said. “If they think marriage is the best way out of a bad situation — at home or otherwise — then we’re not there to stop them.”

It is the second year in a row lawmakers could not reach a last-minute compromise on what, at first, appeared to be a straightforward issue about raising the age from what most lawmakers agreed is embarrassingly low.

Under current law, minors need parental consent to marry, unless a bride is pregnant or has given birth.

Maryland health department statistics show that 85 people aged 17 and younger were married in Maryland in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. There were 10 cases in which two minors married each other that year, while 34 minors married someone aged 18 or 19. Twenty-five minors married someone in their 20s and six married someone in their 30s.

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, and Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, had proposed bills that would have prohibited anyone under 18 from getting married.

Groups supporting the measure said it was needed to prevent teens from being forced into marriage.

Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy for the Tahirih Justice Center, told state delegates that marriage should only occur when both parties are “empowered to give their full and free consent” and are on equal legal footing.

But the legislation morphed into two proposals — state senators preferred taking marriage rights away from 15-year-olds, setting the minimum age at 16. Delegates pushed to set the minimum at 17.

Diana Philip, executive director of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, said the debate over those proposals pitted two “reproductive justice” issues against each other — ending forced marriage and supporting rights to marry.

About 900 girls give birth in Maryland each year, “and some of them are going to choose to marry in order to access certain services and certain rights,” Philip said. That includes health insurance, to solidify parental custody, or to access housing assistance or military benefits, she said.

“You don’t ban a right to marry outright when there’s other ways to assist these young people in a domestic violence context,” Philip said.

Advocates were also concerned about taking away marriage rights from teenagers who already lack the ability to legally emancipate themselves from parents or legal guardians. Maryland doesn’t have an emancipation law. So if a teen who is pregnant or living in an abusive home could not get married, that would be one fewer option for stability.

Raising the marriage age would take autonomy from young women “when they need choices,” Siri said.

There was also a worry that restricting pregnant teens from getting married could lead to proposals limiting their access to reproductive care and abortions. Under Maryland law, parents or legal guardians must be informed when a minor gets an abortion, but their consent is not required.

Atterbeary dismissed those concerns: “This is Maryland. We’re not going to start limiting [reproductive] choice.”

She said she thinks it’s more important to protect vulnerable teens from being coerced into marriage than preserve the rights of “a very small group of teens who might want to get married and might eventually have a ‘happily ever after.’ ”

Zirkin worked into the final hour of the legislative session to pass a bill, calling together a conference committee of senators and delegates less than an hour before the assembly adjourned for the year at midnight. He said he proposed having the courts review marriages involving 16-year-olds, and otherwise raising the marriage age to 17; he also suggested splitting the difference and allowing teens to wed once they’re 16 ½.

But while he said that all agreed leaving the marriage age at 15 “was absolutely outrageous,” a compromise failed.

“This is one of those issues that needs to be fixed,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment to the state that we permit 15-year-olds to get married.”

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