Rape and rights

One of the most shameful moments in last year’s Maryland General Assembly’s session was the untimely death of legislation providing women the opportunity to ask a court to terminate the parenting rights of someone who fathered a child through rape. It was a last-minute, time-ran-out moment that suggested the legislature’s reputation for indifference to women’s rights was not off the mark. Can’t remember the circumstances? That can be forgiven considering that it was the ninth time lawmakers have killed that bill; now is not the year to make it 10.

Three months ago, the General Assembly’s presiding officers promised that the bill would pass this year, and they have indeed made it a top priority. The House give preliminary approval to the measure Tuesday, the same day the Senate gave final approval to its version, 45-0 — but not without controversy. There was a failed attempt last Friday in the Senate to amend the bill to allow mothers and children to continue receiving alimony even after a rapist has lost his parental rights. While such a provision is a fine idea, the alteration might well have put the legislation right back in the kind of roadblock that has prevented its passage so often in the past.

The notion that mothers have to negotiate with rapists over the custody of a child is appalling, and that’s doubtless why the majority of states have approved laws along the lines of what’s been proposed in Annapolis. Opponents of the legislation often complain that the bills pending in Maryland would allow the termination of parental rights of men who haven’t been criminally convicted of rape, but there’s less to that beef than meets the eye. To deny parental rights would still require “clear and convincing” evidence of rape as determined by a court, which is the same standard used to terminate parental rights because of child abuse. Why on earth would that not be adequate? Only in a world where rape is not considered as serious an offense as child abuse, perhaps.

This is not some theoretical problem. There are anestimated 17,000 to 32,000 pregnancies caused by rape every year, according to studies. At least half of women in that situation elect to carry the child to term with a majority choosing to raise the child themselves. That leaves potentially thousands of new opportunities each year for rapists to assert parental rights. As Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller noted last October, victims of rape should not be forced into a position where they must “co-parent with their rapists.” Why has there been so little sympathy for this population in Maryland up until now?

If all goes well and Gov. Larry Hogan’s signs the measure, as he’s expected to do, the state will have gone a long way toward dispelling the horrifying publicity produced by the bill’s failure last April. If so, this may be yet another example of the recent publicity over sexual misconduct and the rise of the #metoo movement against sexual assault and harassment changing the political landscape. It’s no longer acceptable to quietly kill legislation that seeks to protect rape victims from unfair and demeaning treatment.

One final point. What has clearly infused opposition to this legislation is the expectation that women might abuse the power to terminate parental rights, that they might lie about a sexual assault for some reason. Obviously, this is not beyond the realm of possibility, but termination of parental rights remains in the hands of a court and under a standard which may be a notch below what’s required for criminal prosecution (beyond a reasonable doubt) but which is nonetheless quite high. This is not tilting the balance of power, this is about basic human decency. The bill asserts a fair process; it’s lawmakers who ignored the problem who haven’t been fair.

All of which begs a question: Is the General Assembly attuned to women’s issues? Slightly under one-third of Maryland lawmakers are female, which is better than the national average of one-quarter but hardly enough to make the Free State a national leader. Women in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Vermont and Washington state are all better represented in their state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s reasonable to assume that electing more women to the General Assembly would go a long way toward increasing awareness of this and other issues that have been ignored by the male-dominated chambers.

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